What’s in a name? Lots, if it’s naming an Earthwatch Expedition.

If I was writing a novel or screenplay about a female marine biologist and wanted to give her the name “Marina Costa,” my editors would probably say, “Nice play on ‘marine’ and ‘coast,’ but it’s too clever by half—change it.”

This just suggests that truth is cleverer than fiction, and that sometimes names might be destiny. In the case of naming Earthwatch’s expeditions, this might be true even when it takes us a while to land on the “right” name.

One of our newest expeditions, The Red Sea Dolphin Project, is in fact led by Earthwatch scientist Marina Costa, a postgraduate student at the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) and Senior Marine Biologist and Consultant for the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA).

Her name may be spot-on poetic for her chosen career, but we can all agree that the rather generic “Red Sea Dolphin Project,” for all of its strengths, ain’t poetry. But it’s an example of our willingness to trust that sometimes a general title is exactly what’s needed to catch the eye of the casual searcher.

Many Earthwatch expeditions present problems for us during the naming stage; typically, the more diverse and exciting the project promises to be, the harder it is to slap a simple-but-fully-descriptive label on. This difficulty is especially the case when our projects can look, on the surface, like opportunities people might be familiar with in other sectors like environmental tourism and sightseeing.

Unlike whale and dolphin watching opportunities, our cetacean projects aren’t sightseeing pleasure cruises. Yes, you’ll “watch” dolphins and “take pictures” of them during the ten days spent at sea on the “Red Sea Dolphin Project,” but those terms are far too passive for what you’ll actually be doing.

As volunteer researchers, or “citizen scientists”—another name that provokes a lot of debate around these cubicles—you’ll take survey and identification pictures of dolphins and other marine wildlife that you’ve actively sought, and those pictures won’t be (just) souvenirs, they’ll be data.

As with many of our expedition names, “Red Sea Dolphin Project” doesn’t really cover all that you’ll be doing, though we hope it’s enticing enough to motivate prospective volunteers to find out more. Wind direction and strength studies, wave height studies, shoreline and reef studies, and dolphin vocalization studies are all also part of this expedition. A more accurate title might be: “Red Sea Dolphin, Turtle, Bird, Fish, Jellyfish, Reef, Coast, Wind, Wave, and Underwater Acoustic Project.”

But that wouldn’t fit on the Briefing cover. “Red Sea Dolphin Project” will have to do the trick, and when a scientist whose name could be scrambled to spell out “marine coast,” is happy with a title like that, you tend to just go with it. (Learn more about Marina Costa’s interest in dolphins and what’s at stake in this project in our interview with her.)

On expeditions returning to our portfolio, sometimes a name change is called for. Some of you may have noticed that what was formerly “Wildlife and Wine in Bordeaux,” became Sampling Vineyard Ecology and Biodiversity in Bordeaux this year.

The main purposes and research activities of the expedition remain the same, but we’d heard from volunteers and staff over the years that the former title, for all its lovely alliteration, didn’t really capture the scientific import of the expedition. It risked sounding too much like Earthwatchers would just be sipping the latest offerings from Chateau Les Vergnes while waiting for picturesque animals to wander by and say something witty in French.

(Okay, that would require more than just sipping…)

In this case, then, we needed to balance the admitted and appreciated appeal of the location (Bordeaux) and the unique research and accommodations context (an actual vineyard and winery) against the fact that active research (such as an invertebrate Rapid Biodiversity Assessment and erosion measurements) would be taking place.

We needed a name that would convey that this isn’t a cushy pleasure vacation for oenophiles who think biodiversity is a fine aesthetic idea, but not something they’d be particularly interested in going out into the field and doing work for.

“Sampling,” then, gets to appeal to and invoke some of the “fun” aspects while the rest of the title gets to carry the weight of the research, studies which hold tremendous potential for European agriculture and biodiversity. Of course, we know that you hard-core Earthwatchers think research is fun. But let’s admit that you’re a strange bunch, okay?

[That sound you hear in the background is coming from my colleagues yelling, “Tell readers there is good wine on that expedition! And great food! And comfortable accommodations! And picturesque French landscapes!” Duly noted and conveyed.]

In other cases, we change or develop expedition names at least partially in response to things more important than marketing or even labeling accuracy, as has been the case with Restoring Easter Island’s (Rapa Nui’s) Forests.

A relatively new “companion” expedition to the long-standing and very popular “Easter Island (Rapa Nui) Cultures,” this one presented more than one challenge during the naming stage.  A few years ago, in consultation with the researchers and local partners, we concluded it was important to add the indigenous name for Easter Island, Rapa Nui, as well as the idea that more than one culture existed on the island, to what was then titled simply “Easter Island Culture.”

Doing so would, we hoped, counter unhelpful and inaccurate (and, some would say, colonial) assumptions about the land, its inhabitants through the ages, and what actually happened to them. Despite a widely-held assumption in the west, the Rapa Nui people did not all die out, leave, or be taken from what became known as Easter Island. Nor did they, themselves, bring about a total environmental collapse of their ecosystem.

(Quite the contrary, in fact. Learn more about the real story of Rapa Nui and about the amazing life story of Earthwatch scientist Sonia Haoa Cardinali here.)

Problem is, while “Easter Island (Rapa Nui) Cultures” is a relatively short and sweet title, the new companion expedition had a research focus (forestry and agriculture) and a scope of volunteer activities (engaging in reforesting and replanting traditional gardens) that called for a longer title. Thus, the somewhat unwieldy “Restoring Easter Island’s (Rapa Nui’s) Forests” was born. Does it sing? No. But in this case poetry justly takes a backseat to other interests.

Another challenge, truth be told, lies in the parenthetical positioning of Rapa Nui. After all, the argument goes, the Rapanui where there first, and, to the best of anyone’s historical knowledge, named the island before anyone else. Shouldn’t it be the colonial era name (Easter Island) that gets relegated to the parentheses?

Perhaps, if we were writing an academic or political text. But we’ve got to get the word out about this expedition and get people interested in it first so that we can accomplish such education. And to find them, we’ve got to put our best marketing feet forward with the terms they’re already using.

For better and for worse, “Easter Island” is firmly entrenched as a place name—and an appealingly “exotic” one, at that—in the English speaking markets that we draw the overwhelming bulk of our volunteers from.

Removing “Easter Island” from prime position in our titles and materials about these projects might have given us the satisfaction of speaking with greater and more informed cultural and historical sensitivity, but fewer people would have heard us.

Sometimes, to educate, you must first entice. And to entice, you have to speak in terms people already know and use. So, we split the difference on that one: Rapa Nui went in, along with its cultures, but Easter Island stayed in the lead. In a way, the title itself starts the education process.

Not all our Name Games involve such serious soul-searching; sometimes the Muse just takes us places and we all live with the consequences. Maybe in a future edition I can share the story of how we arrived at “When Archosaurs Attacked and Reptiles Ruled Texas.”

Or we can let sleeping fossils lie on that one.

Which expedition names are, or have been, your favorites? Which would you like to see retired, and what would you replace them with? We’d like to know—use the comment section, below, and name away! (After all, the Name Game is going to come around again soon….)

6 thoughts on “What’s in a name? Lots, if it’s naming an Earthwatch Expedition.

  1. The names used to be much simpler, and I liked that! I’ve done 70 expeditions and my favories usually had two to four word titles – much easier to work with! My first was Dancing Birds, second was Before Columbus. The details are in the following text, so you don’t need all of the confusing words in the title! Other favorites were Etruscan Landscapes, Mexican Megafauna, Bringing Back the Bilbies, Origins of Angkor, Spanish Dolphins, England’s Hidden Kingdom, Dinosaur Footprints, Roman Fort on Tyne, etc, etc. I liked Wildlife & Wine in Bordeaux but will be doing it under the new name again in a couple of weeks. I’m doing The Archosaurs in Texas this Summer, and my my reaction to the name, in light of the governor’s recent campaign speeches, was that reptiles still rule!

    Warren, St Paul

  2. Hi Betty,

    Didn’t know of the further coincidence with the ship-building family name; very funny! Great that you’ve had a chance to meet Marina and her team–cheetahs and dolphins all need our help, right?

  3. Yes! Marina Costa is the right name for the right biologist! And do not remember that COSTA is also the name of a big Genuese ship builders, a very well known family in Genova (Marine Republic in the past)…!!!!!

    A great biologist team I met and I warmly suggest for a special holiday!

    Betty, Milan

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