The Human Element
My main job is a General Practitioner (GP) working in London, UK, so I spend most of my days with an abundance of human contact, whether that be in the form of interacting with fellow colleagues or patients. The global pandemic has affected everyone to varying degrees, but the uniform effect for most people is the reduction in human contact. We are a tribal species, creating groups of people that we are comfortable interacting with, that have a similar purpose and give us a feeling of belonging. The Gough Island Restoration Project has been many years in the making with the current team on island having been assembled based on the various skills necessary for the successful completion of the restoration operation itself. For the management team, this has meant looking for the right blend of personalities as well as technical abilities, as throwing 47 people together into a high-pressure situation on one of the remotest islands on Earth could be a recipe for disaster.
Arriving at Heathrow Airport in London, I had a slight anxiety that I wouldn’t be allowed to travel given the UK Government restrictions for travel during COVID times – though I had already been travelling for work in Syria from January to April and was well versed in the various paperwork which would allow me to board the plane. I knew that I would be travelling with four other people, but I had no photographs to identify them with. I was secretly happy though as I could enjoy my last few hours of freedom perusing the duty free and drinking the last barista coffee that I would have in a long time before we would be tethered to each other. The time came to board the plane and I would finally get to meet the four other team members, as the RSPB had booked our airplane seats next to each other to minimise contact with other passengers in order to try and limit our chances of catching COVID19 (we had all been asked to take every precaution to keep safe in the two weeks before travelling, too). The excitement to meet each other was palpable, with vigorous fist bumps all around and rushed introductions before we had to sit down in preparation of take-off. I was sat next to one of the Geographical Information Systems (GIS) analysts, and I listened intently during the flight about their role mapping the island and providing real time updates of the progress of the project for the decision-making team on island.
There is a certain type of person that work on projects like this. Those that are able to thrive and survive in the harshest conditions, with prolonged periods away from the people that they love. We will be away from our family and friends for three months, with no access to social media and limited access to internet for a weekly WhatsApp message with our nearest and dearest.
For me this trip was delayed by one year and in that time, I had inadvertently further prepared myself for the mental rigours of life on a remote island. I had ended up working in NHS Nightingale London (COVID19 field hospital) for two months, the Kara Tepe 2 refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece for a further two months and the Al-Hawl refugee camp in Syria for four months. When arriving back from Syria I had four weeks to prepare myself for the departure to Cape Town.
As we left Cape Town after sunset on 29th May it was an opportunity for us to gather on the rear deck of the S.A. Agulhas II. That chilly night on deck brought us closer together – the first of many bonding experiences. As the lights of the Cape Town dimmed in the distance, I felt the excitement slowly drain and I was filled with anticipation of the coming voyage.
The one thing I was looking forward to was not having access to social media. Over time social media has led to me being more connected than ever before, but there is an element of loneliness as well as eating into time that I could speak to someone in person. Social media has slowly climbed Maslow’s pyramid of hierarchal needs – providing a sense of belonging and at times forming an important part of one’s self-esteem. I see this trip as way for me to restart learning how to meet people and build connections without the veil of digital technology. It can be difficult, even for the most hardened remote deployment expedition experts, without having access to the internet for news about our friends or family or what is happening in the outside world, but we create our own coping mechanisms. Those of us who brought instruments to the island have formed a band (I’m singing) and I have written a spin cycle routine. We also have a weekly poker night and a presentation evening. Now we are on Gough Island our world has shrunk to 47 people and an island 6514 hectares which is much smaller compared to the millions of people that we were surrounded by.
Most of our communications are now unavailable so we have reverted back to times before smartphones. Learning about each other during meals, when we are doing are Base tasks such as cleaning, helping the chef in the kitchen, film nights, board game evenings. Seeing each other as a face rather than a screen. We have been able to bring the team closer together with organising “The Gough Island Mid-Winter Games,” which was a knockout tournament featuring the sports of pin-pong, fussball, table tennis, darts and pool. The Mid-Winter Games kickstarted us socialising more, whether it was in the games room or chatting in the lounge with a warm drink in the cold. For me hearing about a team member’s family and jobs back home is so nice as you can sense the excitement and warmth of happy memories – your face can never betray how you feel.
There is something nostalgic about the atmosphere and how we interact on Base. The games room has pictures of teams that have come to the island every year since the 1960’s and we are following in their footsteps with how they would have bonded over that time. I know one thing for sure is, I will have made friends for life on this deployment.
Dr Hareen De Silva BEM
This year the RSPB and its partners will try to eradicate the house mice on Gough and make it a seabird paradise once again. The project was originally scheduled to go ahead in 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic meant the RSPB and the Tristan da Cunha government had to abandon these plans and airlift the team home. With the delays the project now has a significant funding deficit.
If you would like to help close this funding gap, you can donate directly to the restoration project at https://www.rspb.org.uk/join-and-donate/donate/appeals/gough-island/
Acknowledgement The Gough Island Restoration Programme is being carried out by the RSPB in partnership with Tristan da Cunha, BirdLife South Africa, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (South Africa), the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Island Conservation, Conservación de Islas, Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research and BirdLife International. The programme is part-funded by the RSPB, the UK Government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other generous individuals and organisations.