Shocked researchers emerge from off-grid atoll to Covid reality – NZ Herald


“I left New Zealand at a time when nobody nearby really had it,” said Charlie Thomas, the youngest of the volunteers. “It wasn’t really a big concern for us.”

Just as the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold, in February, four people set sail for one of the most remote places on Earth — a small camp on Kure Atoll, at the edge of the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

There, more than 2250km from Honolulu, they lived in isolation for eight months while working to restore the island’s environment. Cut off from the rest of the planet, their world was limited to a tiny patch of sand halfway between the US mainland and Asia. With no television or internet access, their only information came from satellite text messages and occasional emails.

Aucklander Charlie Thomas has had limited contact with New Zealand since February. Photo / Caleb Jones, AP
Aucklander Charlie Thomas has had limited contact with New Zealand since February. Photo / Caleb Jones, AP

Now they are back, re-emerging into a changed society that might feel as foreign today as island isolation did in March. They must adjust to wearing face masks, staying indoors and seeing friends without giving hugs or hearty handshakes.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, but I started reading the book “The Stand” by Stephen King, which is about a disease outbreak, and I was thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, is this what it’s going to be like to go home?'” said Charlie Thomas, one of the four island workers. “All these … precautions, these things, people sick everywhere. It was very strange to think about.”

Isolation station: Kure Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian islands. Photo / Charlie Thomas, Hawaii Deparment of Land and Natural Resources
Isolation station: Kure Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian islands. Photo / Charlie Thomas, Hawaii Deparment of Land and Natural Resources

The group was part of an effort by the state of Hawaii to maintain the fragile island ecosystem on Kure, which is part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the nation’s largest contiguous protected environment. The public is not allowed to land anywhere in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

'Watching children play outside in masks hit really hard': Batt Butscheck II, in quarantine. Photo / Caleb Jones, AP
‘Watching children play outside in masks hit really hard’: Batt Butscheck II, in quarantine. Photo / Caleb Jones, AP

Kure is the only island in the northern part of the archipelago that is managed by the state. The rest is under the jurisdiction of the federal government. A former Coast Guard station, the atoll is home to seabirds, endangered Hawaiian monk seals and coral reefs that are teeming with sea turtles, tiger sharks and other marine life.

Ready for anything? Kiwi reseacher Charlie Thomas, left, and team on the Kure Atoll. Photo / Matt Saunter, Hawaii DLNR
Ready for anything? Kiwi reseacher Charlie Thomas, left, and team on the Kure Atoll. Photo / Matt Saunter, Hawaii DLNR

Two field teams go there each year, one for summer and another for winter. Their primary job is removing invasive plants and replacing them with native species and cleaning up debris such as fishing nets and plastic that washes ashore.

Before they leave, team members are often asked if they want to receive bad news while away, said Cynthia Vanderlip, the supervisor for the Kure programme.

“A few times a day, we upload and download email so people stay in touch with their family and friends. That’s a huge morale booster, and I don’t take it lightly,” Vanderlip said. “People who are in remote places … rely on your communication.”

"Pandemic? Maybe we should look that up?" Naomi Worcester, camp leader. Photo / Caleb Jones, AP
“Pandemic? Maybe we should look that up?” Naomi Worcester, camp leader. Photo / Caleb Jones, AP

Thomas, the youngest member of the team at 18, grew up in a beach town in New Zealand and spent much of her free time with seabirds and other wildlife. She finished school a year early to start her first job as a deckhand for an organisation dedicated to cleaning up coastlines before volunteering for the summer season on Kure Atoll.

The expedition was her first time being away from home for so long, but she was ready to disconnect.

Crew unload gear as they arrive on Kure Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in late February. Photo / Naomi Worcester/Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources
Crew unload gear as they arrive on Kure Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in late February. Photo / Naomi Worcester/Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources

“I was sick of social media, I was sick of everything that was sort of going on,” she said. “And I thought, you know, I am so excited to get rid of my phone, to lose contact with everything … I don’t need to see all the horrible things that are going on right now.”

When Thomas left New Zealand for Hawaii, there were no virus cases nearby that she could recall. By the time she left Honolulu for Kure, the virus was starting to “creep a little closer” to the islands.

“We were just seeing stories on the television and that sort of thing,” she said. “But, you know, we’re off. We’re leaving. It wasn’t really a big concern for us.”

Arriving in Honololu: Reaserchers wear masks for first time. Photo / Matt Saunter, Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources
Arriving in Honololu: Reaserchers wear masks for first time. Photo / Matt Saunter, Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources

Once on Kure, getting a full picture of what was happening in the world was difficult.

“I guess I didn’t really know what to think because we were getting so many different answers to questions that we were asking,” she said.

Thomas is now in a hotel in quarantine in Auckland, where she lives with her parents, sister and a dog named Benny. She will miss hugs and “squishing five people on a bench to have dinner,” she said.

– Associated Press



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