Families traveling and working together during their vacation can actively begin to solve the world's problems.
“Whale breath,” said Dr. Ken Balcomb. “God, I love it.” The cloud of mist definitely had an oily feel and a fishy smell to it. Alongside the rugged little workboat, three killer whales made chuffing noises as they blasted us with warm, salty breath and prepared to dive again. Cameras clicked frantically as we followed Balcomb’s orders to photograph the white saddle patches behind the orca’s dorsal fins. As principal investigator for the Orca Project, he calls the shots, and as volunteers on the Earthwatch expedition in the Pacific Northwest, our mission was to help the Center for Whale Research in documenting the details of orca society and to monitor the effects of human intrusion on their territory. For 10 seasons, Earthwatch volunteers have assisted Dr. Balcomb with photographing and recording the activities of the three resident pods of killer whales.
Not Your Ordinary Vacation
Earthwatch participants ranging in age from teens to seniors have tagged and released butterflies in the rain forest of Ecuador. They’ve studied Mayan architecture and made recordings of Celtic music. “Earthwatchers” have helped eradicate intestinal parasites in the children of Cameroon. They’ve excavated dinosaur bones and Iron-age villages and have videotaped oral histories of vanishing cultures. Margaret Mead told us, “Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
The Earthwatch Institute puts these small groups together, reaching out to the public and making it possible for interested people to go into the field and work directly with scientists “on the cutting edge of knowledge to solve problems, to learn and to take responsibility for our future.” The non-profit organization supports research programs all over the world, bringing together scientists and volunteers to work on endangered ecosystems, cultural diversity, world health, biodiversity and global change. It’s an impressive track record:
Since 1972, Earthwatch has supported over 2,000 projects in 129 countries and 36 states.
More than 50,000 volunteers have contributed over $34 million and 5,635,300 man- and woman-hours to the search for solutions to the world’s problems.
It’s an idea whose time is right, especially for chronically underfunded scientists. Rather than paying assistants to do the fieldwork, they can tap into a source of willing and able volunteers who pay for the privilege of joining the team.
Natural disasters have prompted a boom in volunteer/travel opportunities. Under initiatives such as “Travel For Good” launched in August 2006 by the online travel company Travelocity public awareness has grown. Travelocity’s annual forecast poll found that 11% of respondents plan to volunteer during their vacations in 2007 – up from 6% in 2006.
“Our Earthwatchers deserve the highest praise. They can — as long as you tell them why they are doing it and where it may possibly lead — be called upon to do any task, no matter how hard, menial or tedious. Or at least give it a jolly good try,” says Dr. William Waldren, whose projects (currently Mallorca’s Copper Age) have relied on Earthwatch’s help for 24 years.
Dr. Peter Quinby, a scientist from Montana, agrees. Quinby’s work is partially funded by Earthwatch. “I was very impressed with the ability of Earthwatch to find dedicated volunteers and to coordinate a nightmare of scheduling and information.” Quinby’s project, Ontario Old-Growth White and Red Pine Forest Survey, takes place east of the Great Lakes, where more than 250 volunteers engage in highly demanding two-week camping and canoeing treks through ancient forests and crystal-clear lakes, recording the sizes and amounts of trees, lichens and wildlife in logged and unlogged areas. “Everybody wins,” he says, “the volunteers, the investigator, Earthwatch and the public.”
Some projects require a great deal of physical work. Some demand that you hike for miles, tracking animals or surveying the countryside. Others require that you live on a research boat in crowded quarters, or sleep in tents and use outhouses.
While some projects employ cooks, others expect you to do your share of the cooking and clean-up. The Orca project, typical in many ways, provided supplies for do-it-yourself breakfast and lunch. Dinners were prepared by a rotating team of staff members and volunteers, and included homegrown vegetables, freshly caught fish and crab, and even steaks. Volunteers from all projects report that the food is plentiful and delicious.
Each Earthwatch participant pays a share of the costs of the trip. The tax-deductible contribution varies, depending on the accommodations provided and the length of the trip. At one end of the spectrum, $725 buys you 10 days searching for and cataloging artifacts inside Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, including restaurant meals and a cozy bunkhouse with hot showers at the Maple Springs Research Center.
At the other end, a little over $2,200 covers your 16-day stay at Joy Adamson’s former home, the Elsamere Conservation Center in Kenya, where you’ll enjoy guest bungalows and chef-prepared meals while you help study the plant and animal life of Lake Navaisha.
Who Is An “Earthwatcher”
The typical Earthwatch volunteer is 16 to 85 years of age, and is a college graduate. Forty percent have a graduate degree, though not necessarily in a field related to their chosen expedition. Though they may come from many countries, all are English-speaking, as are all of the researchers.
Typically, volunteers have normal occupations such as doctors, business people, homemakers, teachers or students. What sets them apart, however, is their willingness to donate time, money and labor to scientific field research. These are people with a mission — a commitment to identifying solutions to scientific, environmental and cultural questions and problems. Many volunteers end up taking their research and conservation experience back to the workplace and integrate the valuable knowledge they have gained into their business and other activities.
The projects can range from the sublime to the, well, sleepy. Becky Snow, a Rockport Shoes employee who recently returned from the Kangaroo Islandkoala project, told me about her first assignment: a 24-hour “stake-out” on a koala she nicknamed “Lump.” Snow said, “We took turns watching him, six hours on and six off. During my night shift, he woke up and ate for 25 minutes. That was the high point!” Other high points included counting bears and tracking a radio transmitter-equipped koala through rain-soaked eucalyptus groves. “July is wintertime in Australia,” she said. “It was cold and rainy much of the time we were there. We were out in the woods for hours, following one of the koalas, then we took a wrong turn and got lost coming back.”
Honking car horns finally guided Snow and her hiking companion back to the camp. What did Rockport gain from this? Becky laughs, “Well, we learned that Rockport’s hiking boots needed more waterproofing. We’re already working on it.”
More to the point, Earthwatchers make new friends among the participants and researchers. By all accounts, they have the deep satisfaction of doing good for the planet. And you’ll bring back a broad, multi-faceted view of global issues that most people never get.
A Planet of Opportunities for Teens, Students & Families
In addition to teen-only trips for 16 and 17-year-olds, Earthwatch offers a variety of family-together volunteer projects that make great hands-on learning experiences. Their counselors strive to broaden kids’ experience with real life science skills and application outside of their classroom. Special organised recreational and cultural activities are designed for Family Teams, and extra staff participate to work exclusively with younger family members.
Everyone can help the planet and get something out of it, as well as see a bit of the world. For 2010, family trips include:
Ancient Britain: Romans on the Tyne – Family
This British based trip costs $750 pp for 5 days of moderate activity, including excavations at an ongoing dig. There is B&B housing, with electricity toilets.
Diamondback Terrapins of Barnegat Bay – Family
With Philadelphia as the departure point, explore one of the most extensive saltmarsh ecosystems on the East Coast in search of an iconic turtle. Housing in on-site research center at Barnegat Bay. Kids above age 12. Cost is $1250 pp for 3 days.
Samburu Communities and Wildlife – Family
Experience the rich traditions of the Samburu people of Kenya as you join them to identify medicinal plants, track Grevy’s Zebras, and discover ways to help the local community. Trip begins in Kenya; cost is $2950 for 10 days; spartan facilities in research station have showers, toilets and electricity.
Whales of British Columbia – Family
Help protect Pacific grey whales by tracking them in their summer feeding grounds. Depart from Tofino, BC, Canada off the coast of Vancouver. Cost is $2850 for a 7 days trip, with light and easy workload.
Earthwatch sponsors research projects on virtually every continent. Here are a few of the recent ones that have been available:
Saving the Songbirds of Tetons. Help find the cause for the declining population of songbirds in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. You will help researchers collect information about birds by finding migratory nests and relocating color banded birds. You will stay at either the Jackson Campus or the Kelly Campus of the Teton Science Schools where meals will be prepared for you. You will share a cabin with 3-4 people that has at least one shower and toilet.
Crocodiles of the Zambezi. Spend your time observing the crocodiles in Zambia. You’ll work with researchers as they capture the crocodiles from boats at night. You’ll help locate, measure, and tag them. During the days you will help with data entries and visit local communities and school to educate them about the crocodiles. You will help with your team with the cooking and cleaning at your campsite overlooking the Zambezi River. You’ll eat traditional African meals and help catch and prepare your own meals.
Dolphins of Greece. Study the dolphins of the Mediterranean in Vonitsa, Greece. You will get to live a traditional village life as you help researches study bottlenose dolphins. You’ll help spot dolphins in the water, track them and record information on their activity and movement patterns. You’ll rest in a large loft that will be shared with other volunteers on your team. You will be responsible for cooking and cleaning for yourself, but many activities can be done as a group.
To request a catalog, call Earthwatch Institute at 800/776-0188 or write to them at 3 Clock Tower Place, Suite 100, Box 75, Maynard, MA 01754, or log onto the Earthwatch.org website.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.