[gallery] A Student’s Journal from the U.S. Virgin Islands

The Giant orb-weaver spider is only one of the exotic encounters that the students experienced in Biology 504, Introduction to Tropical Ecology, while studying in the Virgin Islands last January. Photo by Lisa Manne.

Close your eyes and imagine looking up at the stars. You might see some clouds, a couple of stars perhaps, if you know what to look for you can make out some constellations, but mostly you see the reflected glow from the lights of New York City.

Now imagine looking up and seeing a star in almost every piece of black space. It would be a truly magnificent sight to behold. Don’t open your eyes yet. Additionally, imagine sitting out on a dock, in what is practically your own private pier, surrounded by pristine water, the moonlight, and the sound of waves crashing around you.  Now include 16 fantastic people who are accompanying you in this unbelievable setting, some of them dancing, others just relaxing.

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The group documents their first encounter with giant buttress roots. Photo by Ella Viola

This doesn’t sound like a typical experience for CSI students, but 16 of us, well, 14 if you don’t include faculty, recently had this experience for 11 nights on the island of St. John in the Virgin Islands. Not only were we having a great time, learning about the tropics, but we were getting Biology credits for being there. Particularly, the course was Biology 504, Introduction to Tropical Ecology, taught by Dr. Lisa Manne.

The success of the trip was predicated on the fact we had eager students and faculty (who did a fantastic job of organizing everything) who were all willing to help each other out and roll with the punches no matter what kind of situations arose throughout the duration of the trip. These situations ranged from not getting enough food during mealtimes (a word from the Professor to the kitchen staff solved this crucial issue) to being tossed around like a baseball trying to snorkel around a reef.

It certainly didn’t hurt that our free time was spent relaxing on what seemed like our own private immaculate beach with crystal-clear water a mere ten-minute walk from VIERS (Virgin Island Environmental Research Station), our home away from home.

VIERS is a field station located in the middle of the National Park on St John, literally, only dirt roads will get you there. The camp is partly powered by solar panels, and they use water via a rain-collecting system around all the buildings in the camp. These things make the carbon footprint of the camp very small. The one downside of the trip was the three-minute showers, a consequence of living off the grid, where the only fresh water is supplied by rain.

It was a bonus that we were snorkeling every day in the pristine waters of the Virgin Island National Park, and seeing some astounding marine life. On several different occasions we saw sharks, stingrays, barracuda, and even a sea turtle.

When we weren’t snorkeling off a boat or in a bay or even in a mangrove, we were doing some amazing hiking, with some amazing views.

Part of our work on the course entailed participating in some intense and cool research on resource use by hummingbirds, travel distances of marked hermit crabs, perch heights and behaviors of lizards, feeding times of butterflies, and diversity of various marine life. In addition to the research we also had some guest lecturers come and teach us about the biodiversity of the Virgin Islands, and specifically St John.

It is quite an experience sitting on the Caribbean sand writing our course journal about our experiences while basking in the tropical sun. It seemed like by the end of the trip we had been living off the grid for long enough to be in serious touch with nature. I think a few of us were telling time by the sun, a skill that was subsequently lost, probably the moment we landed in Newark.

This is a research trip I would recommend to everyone interested in tropical cultures and ecosystems. Not only will you learn a lot, but you will have a great time doing it.

On second thought, I rescind my recommendation. I don’t want the next trip to fill up before I have a chance to register.

For the Love of Japan

Manami Shirai, left, and a friend raise funds for Japan at their College of Staten Island, New York, last week

The devastating images left in the wake of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake which struck Japan on March 11, will, no doubt, linger in our minds for a very long time. For the Japanese people, however, those images are an everyday reality. Officials say over 10,000 people are confirmed dead, and more than 17,000 are missing. They warn that the final toll can reach almost 20,000. But, what continues to stand out amidst the growing tragedy is the resilient spirit of the Japanese. While engineers still do not know the full extent of damage to the country’s infrastructure— brick by brick, the Japanese have started to rebuild their own communities. With helping hands and willing hearts, they stand together, united to the cause.

Japanese Manami Shirai is living proof that the bond they share is indeed unbreakable. Mere days after the earthquake, Shirai, who’s currently on a one-year exchange programme at New York’s College of Staten Island, began organising fund-raising ventures on campus to help Japan. So far, she’s been able to raise more than US$800. “Japanese people don’t show their stress in front of everybody. They can endure anything. If there is a store, no one will steal from that store. Teenagers are becoming volunteers for the elderly and children. Women and wives cook and share with their neighbours,” said the Ueda-Shi, Nagano native. “Even refugees are helping out.” When the T&T Guardian spoke to the 22-year-old last week, she was in the process of wrapping up yet another fund-raiser which she held in the school’s cafeteria. Officials say it will take up to five years and about 25 trillion yen ($309 billion) to rebuild Japan, but Shirai was happy to help, albeit a little. “Every dollar counts,” she told us. “I know students don’t have a lot of money. If I get $1 I’m glad because any amount of money can help right now.”

Something dark
Although Shirai’s family and close friends have survived the disaster, life continues to be an uphill battle. There are renewed fears of a nuclear crisis and simple necessities like water and food are fast becoming scarce commodities. And then there are the aftershocks—officials say Japan has been jolted by record number of aftershocks since the initial quake. “Everything has changed. My dad said our family restaurant is suffering. Because of the tsunami, fishermen cannot get fresh fish. He says his income is about a quarter of what it once was,” she lamented. “I still can’t imagine that that disaster ever happened in Japan. The number of people who are already dead and still missing is the biggest number in our history. It’s more than World War one and two. “My youngest brother tells me that the atmosphere is not what it used to be. He feels something dark is in his life…”

Need to survive

The Elementary Education major will be back in Japan in July, as her exchange programme comes to an end. She noted that she had “mixed feelings” about returning to her country. “I want to go back to Japan as soon as possible but on the other hand, in Staten Island there are only a few Japanese people and if I leave, there will be less Japanese to spread the word and organise activities to help,” she explained. Still, Shirai remains optimistic that her homeland will recover from this latest adversity. But for now, she’s being practical. “Japan is a country which has helped all other countries for many years. Right now we need help. “I know the smaller countries may not be able to do much but I want to ask developed countries like America and Canada to do a little more to assist us,” she said. “My people are still suffering. They need money for food. They need water. They need electricity and gas. They just need to survive.”

This story originally appeared in the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online, and is reprinted here with permission.