Want to travel responsibly? Combining a dive trip or dive classes with helping to conserve the planet’s marine resources can be one of the most rewarding experiences of a lifetime. Scientists estimate that two million known marine species call the ocean their home, with a possible nine million species yet to be discovered. The importance of the oceans, lakes and rivers can’t be overstated: they are a rich source of food, water, sodium chloride and other salts, they provide habitat and transportation, they regulate the water cycle, currents and climate of the entire planet and life would cease to exist without them. Here are ten marine conservation volunteer vacations you can embark on, ranging from tracking whale migrations in Canada to diving with great white sharks in South Africa!
1. Study Pink River Dolphins in the Amazon: The Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development sponsors a program that asks volunteers to travel down the rivers of the Amazon in small boats, closely observing and recording the behavior of rare pink dolphins. The small “botos” as they are known in Brazil are thought to be one of the most intelligent and beautiful dolphins in the world. The friendly and sensitive animals have a brain capacity 40% larger than that of humans and have lived in peace in the Amazon for centuries with their human counterparts, but are now threatened by the increasing levels of pollution and deforestation of the Amazon.
2. Protect Sea Turtles and Their Environment in Kenya: One of the most threatened forms of marine life, the sea turtle, is under constant threat from fishermen (who prefer to kill trapped sea turtles, rather than release them), pollution and natural predators. The Watamu Turtle Watch (WTW) that works in cooperation with locals and the Kenya Wildlife Service, recruits volunteers to assist with daily patrols to search for nesting turtles tracks in the sand and to monitor incubating and hatching times. There is also a Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center that cares for ill and injured turtles so that they may return to the wild.
3. Track Whale Migration in Canada: During the summer months of the northern hemisphere, Pacific Grey Whales migrate to Clayoquot Sound and the surrounding waters of British Columbia to feed. The Earthwatch Institute’s volunteers paddle out in kayaks to work side by side with research scientists studying the effects of climate change on the whales or on a boat, monitoring the underwater activity of the whales through the use of sonar and underwater video. The waters are also home to orcas, porpoises, seals, sea lions and river otters.
4. Research Manatee Behavior in Florida: Slow-moving, gentle, ungainly manatees, whose closest relative is the elephant, are thought to have evolved from a wading, plant-eating animal. Also known as Sea Cows or Dugongs, the adult manatee often grows to ten feet long and can weigh between 800 to 1,200 lbs. Although manatees can live up to 60 years, their lives are often shortened by human causes such as boat accidents, pollution, being drowned in canal locks or flood-control structures, being trapped in fish or crabbing nets, or ingestion of garbage, fish hooks or plastic bags. The Manatee Observation and Education Center in Fort Pierce, Florida has many open volunteer positions, including Roving Naturalist, Discovery Guide, Education Assistant, Grant Writing Assistant or Speaker/Lecturer.
5. Save Manta Rays in Australia: The manta ray is the world’s largest ray, with a top wing span of 25 feet (7.6 meters) and a top weight of 5,100 lbs (2,300 kilos). They are thought to be highly intelligent with the largest brain-to-body ratio of sharks, rays and skates. Although they are related to stingrays, they do not have a stinger and are not dangerous to divers. On Lady Elliot Island, Queensland, Earthwatch Institute sponsors a volunteer program that utilizes divers and snorkelers to take photos of the rays for identification and research purposes. Demand in Asia for manta ray parts for use in manufacturing medicinal products has risen sharply and has greatly increased the fishing and trapping of these amazing animals, whose numbers are dwindling fast. Volunteers track and record data, analyze plankton and strive to understand manta ray behavior, migration and mating habits.
6. Dive with Great White Sharks in South Africa: Over 200 million sharks are killed brutally each year in order to harvest the fins, skin, jaws, teeth or internal organs for use in medicine, beauty treatments or for aphrodisiacs. Because sharks are slow to grow to maturity and reproduce, the killing has (and continues to) greatly diminish their populations. Great White Sharks are especially vulnerable as they are abandoned shortly after birth by their mothers, so must learn to fend for themselves quickly. Greenforce Global Volunteering runs a program of cage-diving operations in order to study these solitary giants up close. Volunteers research, collect information and educate the public about the importance of protecting sharks and their environment.
7. Conserve the Indian Ocean in the Seychelles: Global Vision International (GVI), an organization dedicated to supporting international charities, non-profits and governmental agencies, organizes volunteers to assist with marine conservation as a member of the GVI Marine Research Team. The expeditions are located in the Cap Ternay Marine National Park in the Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean that lies north of Madagascar. Volunteers scuba dive along the reefs, searching for and recording research data on coral, fish, whale shark migration, turtle nesting, in-water turtles, octopus and lobsters. Discounted dive lessons can be arranged.
8. Monitor Marine Mammals in Mexico: GVI also sponsors a program to help conserve marine mammals by studying their habitat and customs in the area of Punta Gruesa, Mexico, situated north of the Mayan village of Mahahual. Volunteer divers work with local university researchers to gather information on mammals and other marine life as well as reefs, mangroves and wetlands in order to better understand the interaction between animals and their environment. College credit is also available for qualified volunteers.
9. Help Conserve the Great Barrier Reef in Australia: This project is based on Brampton Island, part of the gorgeous Whitsunday Island chain of Australia. The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest, is comprised of over 3,000 individual reef systems and is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The reef stretches for 1,800 miles (3,000 km) along the Queensland coast and is home to over 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish, 200 types of birds, 20 types of mollusks as well as sponges, rays, microorganisms, sea turtles and reptiles. Unfortunately, like everything else in the ocean, the reef is being adversely affected by climate change, invasive plant life, damage from water crafts and pollution. Go! Volunteer Abroad helpers sail by catamaran to set up camp on a tropical beach, assisting with eradicating invasive plants, collecting and analyzing marine samples and monitoring and recording the health of the reef.
10. Protect Bottlenose Dolphins in Greece: Another volunteer opportunity from the Earthwatch Institute, this project is based on the Greek village of Vonitsa on the Amvrakikos Gulf. Researchers work with volunteers in a small boat to monitor the activity of Bottlenose dolphins, follow them and record their numbers, activities, interactions and identifying marks. The gulf has one of the densest dolphin populations ever reported in the Mediterranean, estimated at about 150. Their lives and home are under constant threat from fishermen, pollution and ecosystem changes and scientists and volunteers work together to understand and control the damage as much as possible.