Ocean Watch

Susan Scott

Tern Island is cushy
place for research

Many of the questions people ask me about living on Tern Island concern creature comforts. Is there electricity? Fresh water? Do we bring our own food?

What kind of transportation is there on the island?

When I read some of these questions to my four co-workers, we all laughed, not because the questions are silly, but because we're spoiled rotten. Compared with most remote field stations, Tern Island is the Ritz.

First, we have high-tech communication. The station's computers talk to a satellite phone that sends and receives e-mail. We pay $2.15 a minute for this service, which adds up fast when you get spammed, but still, the system almost always works. If it fails, however, we still have a single-sideband radio.

For many of our other comforts, we can thank the U.S. Coast Guard, which in 1952 rebuilt the U.S. Navy's 1942 barracks. When the Coast Guard passed the island to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1979, the barracks came with it.

Bedrooms and bathrooms with showers line two corridors of our concrete, U-shaped home. In the center is a large kitchen, an enormous pantry and a common living area complete with ping-pong, a pool table and a video/DVD player.

Hundreds of books and videos line the walls.

We do not bring our own food. The occasional ship and airplane keep the pantry, two propane freezers and seven propane refrigerators well supplied. The challenge here is not coping with monotonous meals, but with keeping the pounds off.

On sunny days, rooftop solar panels provide plenty of 110- and 12-volt electricity. A generator fills in during rainy spells.

But Tern islanders take advantage of their damp days, too. The roofs and a former tennis court collect rainwater and pumps send it to five huge water tanks. But when the need arises, a reverse osmosis system converts sea water to fresh.

That means we have enough fresh water for daily, solar-hot showers.

And transportation? We could ride bicycles, but most of us prefer to walk our half-mile-long island. Not only does walking help work off those late-night pantry pounds, but the scenery and photography is to die for.

Boston Whalers allow us to visit the islets around the atoll, but fishing is forbidden. The waters as well as the land in and around French Frigate Shoals Atoll are protected. This makes for great snorkeling, complete with giant ulua, huge opihi and sharks.

Luxury abounds here on Tern Island, but facilities this nice require continual maintenance. Besides wildlife work, we do everything from sweeping sand off the catchment court (thrown there by nesting turtles and hole-digging seabirds), to oiling the boat hoist and washing bird droppings off the solar panels.

People who live here earn their keep.

But the rewards are great. For instance, a wedge-tailed shearwater just flip-flopped noisily into my room on its big webbed feet and now sits moaning for a mate.

For a wildlife refuge station, it doesn't get better than this.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Marine science writer Susan Scott can be reached at


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