Expeditions with a Little Help from Our Friends

Conserving the Earth isn’t easy. Everyone has the right to nature, and to understand how people are affected by the way nature works. This understanding requires we get by with untold hours of real and meaningful action, extensive research, and community outreach and education. This is why Earthwatch Expeditions were created.

We pair citizen scientists (people like you who’d like a chance to do some real science) with some of the leading scientists in their fields to help measure, track, record,  observe, snorkel, photograph, weigh, sample, touch, listen, build, learn, tag, and teach. None of this can occur without funding.

Seeking wildlife in South Africa (photo: Kate Grounds)

Seeking wildlife in South Africa (photo: Kate Grounds)

Underwriting overcomes many research obstacles
Fixed costs for research programs can be high. It can be a lot to ask expedition participants to carry the full burden of this expense. A few years back, Earthwatch identified a way to reduce the cost barrier to those who wanted to volunteer their time but who may not have had the deep pockets required to cover a program’s full expenses: underwriting.

When a passionate donor opts to underwrite a project, many of the hard costs – such as operating the research facility, sending a lead scientist and his or her team to the site, feeding and housing them, and supplying their research equipment – can be underwritten so that volunteers contribute only costs associated with their participation.

Underwriting also provides stability for the scientist, as the research team is assured of having their overhead paid for without reliance on a certain number of participants joining the expedition.

In 2012, one donor, Pam Chesonis, came to Earthwatch with a passion for science and a belief in the value of asking questions about the way nature works and how people fit into it. Pam is a benefactor of the Chesonis Family Foundation, and she was actively looking for opportunities to support researchers who shared a similar passion and belief.

“I originally saw an article in the newspaper talking about volunteer vacations that mentioned Earthwatch. I had always been interested in wildlife conservation and regretted it wasn’t a path I headed down in my career. When I investigated further, Earthwatch seemed a perfect fit to get my family’s foundation involved to help conserve species.”

And indeed, Pam did get involved.

“My first expedition was working with Trinidad’s Leatherback Sea Turtles. It was making such a great impact. I got to see how research was done and to work up close with animals, which  was exactly what I was looking for. It  allowed me to change the environment by directly impacting the community.”

Her first year of underwriting, Pam supported three research projects: Trinidad’s Leatherback Sea Turtles, the Red Sea Dolphin Project, and Dolphins of Greece. Her generous contribution covered research costs and also enabled Community Fellows to join the expeditions.

Leatherback sea turtles nesting, Matura beach, Trinidad (photo: Sandy Nesbitt)

Leatherback sea turtles nesting, Matura beach, Trinidad (photo: Sandy Nesbitt)

Community Fellows can be jolly good
Earthwatch is about not only science, but also the engagement of people in science, which is key to changing the world. Community Fellows are local people invited by the lead scientist to join an expedition team who have an interest in the program, or can make an impact on it. The benefits of the Community Fellowship program include:

  1. Integrating research into the community – Engagement of key local stakeholders helps commit them to the environmental issues being studied. This also helps build a community network that can help influence change in practices. On one program, the Minister of Tourism of the host country was chosen as a fellow because  he was in a position to actually make changes in tourism policy.
  2. Enabling personal and professional development of community members – Community members are selected based on their potential to gain knowledge they would not have had the opportunity to gain otherwise. For instance, teachers can be equipped with a better understanding of science that they can pass on to their students.
  3. Providing other volunteers with an enriched local experience. – On these unique teams, volunteers can work and share meals side by side with community members. This deepens a volunteer’s exposure to local language, culture, and ideas.
  4. Enhancing the scientist’s field research – The amount of data that can be collected is dependent on the number of volunteers participating. By adding community members, more data can be collected and more research can be achieved.
  5. Increasing the number of participants during some parts of the year – To answer scientific questions, researchers must collect data during particular times of the year. Sometimes an expedition may be scheduled during a time of year that is not popular with volunteers. Community Fellows are strategically placed on teams that may otherwise not have enrolled a sufficient number of volunteers.

Underwriting dollars through Pam Chesonis helped make a significant impact on ocean research by enabling a range of community members to join research projects in the field. For instance:

On the Red Sea Dolphin Project, local engineers and photo journalists participated to learn about the Red Sea and its threats. The engineers helped create new research equipment that allows data to be captured more effectively. The photographers used their tricks of the trade to improve the pictures used to identify dolphins. The images captured by the photographers also appeared in their own articles, helping to spread word of the experience beyond those who participated in the expedition.

Photographer on dolphin program in Egypt (photo: HEPCA)

Photographer on dolphin program in Egypt (photo: HEPCA)

On Dolphins of Greece, local college students majoring in marine biology were able to gain hands-on experience collecting data on dolphins. Some of these students will become the premier scientists in their field on whom citizens will depend on for important findings and decisions.

Dolphins in Greece with the Tethys Research Institute (photo: Dr. Giovanni Bearzi)

Dolphins in Greece with the Tethys Research Institute (photo: Dr. Giovanni Bearzi)

The future isn’t what it used to be
With the success of research underwritten last year, Pam Chesonis and her Foundation have committed to generously underwrite programs in 2013 and beyond. In addition to once again sponsoring Trinidad’s Leatherback Sea Turtles, she will sponsor Conserving Leopards and Monkeys in South Africa and Safeguarding Whales and Dolphins in Costa Rica.

“Our involvement is because we want to make a difference. I pick projects that I feel need the extra push and will get the most impact from our dollars. The project we picked in Egypt (Red Sea Dolphin Project) might be tough to get volunteers for because of what is going on in Egypt, so bringing locals onto the project has had a huge impact. Because of our sponsorship, another organization also provided substantial sponsorship, so contributing really had a lasting impact.”

On Pam’s longer-term plans in working with Earthwatch:

“Our commitment is for three years, and after that, we will take a look at where we go forward from there. For each project, every year, we get to see the results of where the money went. People on the expeditions often write to us. We use all of this to see if this is a worthwhile future endeavor.”

Earthwatch Expeditions are always in need of continued support. Interested donors with questions about how they can get involved with research are encouraged to contact Mark Chandler, Director of Research, at mchandler@earthwatch.org or at 978-450-1227.