From Loons to Cocoons

Fifteen years ago, Earthwatch volunteer Tim Bonebrake went on an expedition to study loons in Maine. Today, Tim is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Hong Kong and teaches his students about the importance of field research. 

Volunteers study loons on our current Loons of the Gulf Oil Spill expedition

Volunteers study loons on our current Loons of the Gulf Oil Spill expedition.

First Time Researcher: Listening to Loons When Tim was a sophomore in high school, his biology teacher, and Earthwatch Expedition alum, guided him to his first opportunity as a citizen scientist. “I applied for an Earthwatch fellowship to go on an expedition and thankfully, they accepted me,” Tim recalled. “Loons in Maine examined the effects of mercury contamination on loon behavior.” This was Tim’s first research experience. “This highly educational and awe-inspiring expedition sparked my interest that would later flourish into a love for environmental sciences,” Tom conveyed.

Volunteers collecting data on Gulf loons

Volunteers collecting data on Gulf loons

While Tim was on the expedition, he and his group jumped onto their boat and set out to catch up with loons in their natural habitat. “We made distress calls of baby loons and waited for adult loons to approach the boat.” One person was tasked to hold the spotlight on the boat, “when the light shone on the loons, they froze like deer in headlights. It was a miraculous sight to see,” said Tim. Tim was tasked with holding the loon for data collection and observation. But his job was no easy mission. “The loons in Maine are the heaviest in all of North America, so holding one of these birds while taking wingspan measurements, feather and blood samples was by no means easy,” Tim said. Some loons in this area can weigh over 16 pounds, and their bodies are so heavy relative to their wing span that they need about 100 to 600 foot “runway” in order to take off.

Volunteers measure the wingspan of a loon in the Gulf of Mexico

Volunteers measure the wingspan of a loon in the Gulf of Mexico.

Loons are most known for their unusual calls, which vary from wails to tremolos to yodels. You can listen to a loon here! “Now that is a noise I will never forget,” said Tim. Growing Into A Scientist: Onto Butterflies It wasn’t long before Tim earned his B.S. in Environmental Sciences from the University of California, Berkeley and then my PhD in Biology at Stanford University.” By then, Tim’s curiosity of species had cocooned into a passion. Tim studied numerous butterfly populations throughout North and Central America before completing his dissertation: Global change implications of adaptation to climatic variability. His understanding of butterflies and their role did not stop there. “My colleague and collaborator, Vu Van Lien, ran the Earthwatch expedition Butterflies of Vietnam for six years.”

Eathwatch volunteers identify more than 200 different butterfly species in Vietnam

Eathwatch volunteers identify more than 200 different butterfly species in Vietnam.

By the expedition’s conclusion, the data enabled Tim and Dr. Lien Vu to understanding of the relationship between climate and butterfly populations. Teaching the Scientists of the Future Today, as a professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, Tim is trying to create a new wave of citizen scientists. “I encourage my students to do field work because, as tedious as it is, it is an integral part of science. I try to get my students involved in my research because ecology is not something you can do alone, especially when we need large, long term data sets. That’s why Earthwatch is such a great organization because it has citizen scientists who are willing to volunteer their time and do that necessary work.”

Tim conducting his own research in California.

Tim working at one of his research sites in California.

Living a Norwegian Whale’s Tale

Earthwatch volunteer Jim Stevenson headed to Norway last month on the inaugural Investigating Whales and Dolphins of the Norwegian Arctic expedition. During his time on the Arctic sea, Jim and the rest of the volunteers got up close and personal with a pod of more than 20 killer whales!

Jim’s journey began when he submitted a story to BBC Wildlife’s Nature Writer of the Year contest. Jim’s fishing tale, Miller’s Thumb, beat out more than 160 entries to win the grand prize. He tells the story of catching small fish in a river as a small boy, and how those memories stay with him today. The prize earned him a space on the expedition, and he shared his experience with us.

Jim Stevenson seeks fish in his local river.

Jim Stevenson seeks fish in his local river.

We’re Surrounded… By Killer Whales!

On Investigating Whales and Dolphins of the Norwegian Arctic, scientists and the research team were on a mission to investigate the behaviors and needs of dolphins and sperm, killer, and humpback whales.

“The research we helped with in Norway was incredible,” Jim said. “We assisted the scientists by recording whale sightings from two whale-safari boats, a ferry, and the Andenes lighthouse, taking photographs and using a GPS and sound recording device to locate the whales.”

Norwegian boat volunteers in the Norwegian Arctic.

Norwegian boat volunteers in the Norwegian Arctic.

Volunteers are conducting whale sound recordings because sperm whales have a complex social life and navigate in the dark using echo-location. “One morning out on the water, we found two sperm whales to add to our data collection,” Jim said. “That same afternoon, aboard the boat, we spotted a humpback whale that stayed on the surface for only minutes at a time.” Jim then described one of the most memorable days of his life. “We then caught sight of a pod of four killer whales that we then followed for over an hour. By the end of the afternoon, we were surrounded by over 20 killer whales that came very close to the boat. I will never forget that afternoon.”

One of 20 killer whales surrounding the boat Jim was conducting research from.

One of 20 killer whales surrounding the boat Jim was conducting research from.

Jim and his team of volunteers are in Norway to increase knowledge of these species in Norwegian waters, and contribute to the conservation of the marine environment. This research will ultimately be shared with the local communities to raise awareness of marine mammal importance and offer practical alternatives to mistreatment of the whales here.

A Stone’s Throw from the North Pole

Volunteers on this expedition stay 300 miles inside the Arctic Circle at the village of Andenes, a point at the end of the island of Andøya. “I tried to research the area ahead of time,” Jim explained, “but neither Google Earth nor the maps that I had showed any detail because it used to be a Cold War naval base. That was exciting for me to learn more about!”

Jim’s home during the expedition, the foot of a lighthouse, was an ideal spot to explore the Arctic flora and fauna of Norway. “With 24 hours of daylight a day, we had plenty of time for sight-seeing,” Jim said. He researched plant life in the area before heading to Norway, and because of his extensive knowledge, was asked to give a talk to the guides and volunteers on the expedition. “I talked about the seabirds we would see, puffins especially. We were all excited about the prospect of seeing these stocky Arctic seabirds!”

The Andenes lighthouse where Jim and the other volunteers stayed.

The Andenes lighthouse where Jim and the other volunteers stayed.

Telling of a Whale’s Tale

Jim and the other volunteer’s help researching whales throughout the waters of the Arctic is a tremendous help for Earthwatch scientists on finding ways to protect these fragile species. While writing is what landed Jim in Norway, his writing continued once he got there – this time blogging about his experience in the field. Here is an excerpt:

Our vision of the whale is based on art and literature from a time when the only view of a whole whale from the descriptions from the whaling men themselves. From our world, suspended between ocean and atmosphere, all we can see of a sperm whale is the top of its head and part of its back. This animal is helpless on the surface because it needs to charge its blood with oxygen for fifteen minutes before exhaling all the air from its body and descending to the invisible depths where we cannot follow, for over an hour. So, although we can claim to have seen a sperm whale, we have only just touched the surface.

Read Jim’s full blog, Whale-Spot.

A sperm whale’s fluke, the distinctive part of its anatomy most commonly seen by observers.

A sperm whale’s fluke, the distinctive part of its anatomy most commonly seen by observers.

Congratulations, Jim, on your successful writings, and for sharing your stories with the Earthwatch community and beyond!

Earthwatchers Make History in the Water

Earthwatch volunteers recently returned from a two-week expedition Snorkeling to Protect Reefs in the Bahamas and conducted 19 patch reef surveys, more than any previous expedition.

Snorkeling in the Bahamas: Why Are We Here Again?

Kyle Hutton, team leader, took ten teenagers from the United States and the United Kingdom to the Bahamas to help scientists figure out the importance of patch reefs and mangroves for protecting the shoreline and supporting fishing communities. “These areas are incredibly important nursery grounds for fish in the area,” Kyle told us.

Kyle explaining to the volunteers the purpose of this coral research

Kyle explaining to the volunteers the purpose of this coral research

All over the world, scientists are studying huge coral reefs, like the Great Barrier Reef and the Andros Coral Reef, but not a lot of research is typically conducted on smaller, patch reefs. These small patch reefs are incredibly important for studying fish development and climate change.

“On this project, we are gathering all the info we can on patch reefs and fish counts to try to figure out why some small patch reefs have an abundance of fish, and why others are practically desolate,” Kyle said.

When teams first arrive on the project, each person is designated a specific role. “One person will become the resident expert in parrot fish, and another person is in charge of angel fish,” he explained. It is that team member’s job to identify and keep track of all instances of their designated fish within a specific reef. Other team members are in charge of evaluating the actual patch reef itself. Patch reefs can range in size from 5 to 30 feet. “That person’s job is to take all the physical measurements of the patch reef,” he said. “They evaluate the length and depth, and then go through with a chain to record all the nooks and crannies to evaluate how complex each patch reef is.”

Some of the patch reefs might have less than 20 fish, and others could have thousands. The research aims to figure out why fish are attracted to different patch reefs.

A student volunteer dives down to count XXX fish in the reef

A student volunteer dives down to count angel fish in the patch reef

Rockstar Team: More Patch Reefs Than Ever Before

“We collected data on the most patch reefs we’ve ever measured on an Earthwatch Expedition,” said scientist Alistair Harborne. Of all twelve Earthwatch Expeditions that have headed to the Bahamas before, the record was only 14. “This group did double the work of what the average team that heads to the Bahamas accomplishes,” Kyle said.

 Throughout the two weeks, Harborne and Kyle both knew that this team had the potential to accomplish a historic amount of research. “The group make-up was ideal,” Kyle said. “All of the students were incredible energetic and athletic, and in some instances we would head out in the mornings and do 4 or 5 patch reefs in a single day.” The group did have some days of bad weather, and were stuck on land because of thunder and lightning, but in the end, the group surveyed a total of 19 patch reefs.
A student volunteer examining the make-up of the reef

A student volunteer examining the make-up of the patch reef

Beyond the Research: A Spark Is Lit

The research that Kyle’s team was able to accomplish is invaluable for the patch reefs and for the Bahamian ecosystem as a whole. “The information is really instrumental,” Kyle said. “If you know which areas are abundant for fish and are important to the healthy function of the patch reefs, you can help local governments create marine preserves.”

Why do some patch reefs have thousands and fish and others have less than ten? “This research will hopefully give us a lot of answers that we don’t have right now. Is it the reef’s proximity to land? Or the algae cover which is influenced by climate change?”

The research helps more than just the patch reefs in the Bahamas, too. “The real reason I lead these teams of students is because of the influence we have on them,” Kyle said. “It’s such a pinnacle point in a kid’s life and it’s an incredible experience to see that spark light up in them when they get it. When they finally realize that they can have an actual impact on the environment.”

Some of the volunteers on this expedition had already shown signs of continuing their research journeys. “I can say with the utmost confidence that at least two of the students on this expedition will be heading down the marine biology path once they’re back at school,” Kyle said. “One of the volunteers was even talking about returning to the school where we stayed while we were on the expedition. It’s clearly an influential life experience for them.”

Kyle and the team after a long day snorkeling

Kyle and the team after a long day snorkeling

Kyle and his team collected an unprecedented amount of research, and you can get involved too! From the Bahamas, to the Seychelles, to Australia, Earthwatch volunteers are constantly collecting invaluable amounts of data on coral reefs all around the world. Want to join the expedition Kyle went on? Read more about our Snorkeling to Protect Reefs in the Bahamas.

Turtles, Volcanoes, and 150,000 Kids

Three years ago, British geology student Kimberley Wyatt flew to Costa Rica to protect baby turtles from egg poachers. She was so inspired by the work accomplished by her and her team that since returning, she’s been educating her fellow Brits on saving marine life in their own backyard.

Kimberley with a baby turtle after hatching.

Kimberley with a baby turtle after hatching.

Saving Turtles: It All Started In A Volcano

It all started when Kimberley was studying for a degree in geology and needed research experience. She applied for an Earthwatch student fellowship to study active volcanoes in Central America. While she was there, one of the other volunteers  mentioned a previous expedition she had been on helping to conserve enormous sea turtles in Costa Rica. It was something she knew she had to be part of immediatelyKimberley didn’t even bother heading home between trips.

“I jumped on a single engine plane and headed straight to Costa Rica.”

Warding Off Poachers To Protect Turtle Eggs

On the beaches of Costa Rica where leatherback sea turtles are under threat of extinction due to egg poaching, Kimberley and the other volunteers would find turtle nests and make sure all of the eggs were safe. “The entire experience was just incredible. We monitored any eggs that looked like they might be in danger.  I felt like we were able to really protect them.”

Over the 10 day period, Kimberley saw five nests hatch. Each nest produces 100 babies and if the nests hatched in the morning, we would have to grab the baby turtles and put them in wet sand containers until the evening. It’s safer for them to head to sea at night.” The babies weren’t the only inspiration for Kimberley. “Seeing that full grown turtle on the beach for the first time is the most moving experience. It’s almost like seeing a dinosaur. They are upwards of 5 feet long! But it’s just heartbreaking to know that only one in a thousand of all leatherback hatchlings will survive. That is what inspired me to to do what I do today.”

Baby leatherback sea turtle after making its way to the ocean.

Baby leatherback sea turtle after making its way to the ocean.

 Teaching 150,000 Kids About Threats to Marine Wildlife

Kimberley’s experience helping to save baby sea turtles propelled her to partner with the Marine Conservation Society, a British organization that promotes conservation throughout the waters of England. “I was so inspired saving those turtles that I knew I had to keep my journey in ocean health going. I started working with the Marine Conservation Society. We travel to schools and trade shows to teach people about saving these animals.”

Since 2006, the Marine Conservation Society where Kimberley volunteers has visited 150,000 elementary school kids across England to help them understand the threats to marine wildlife. “From choosing sustainable fish to eat, to the dangers of long line fishing, or not using plastic in school, we try to teach them everyday practices to promote sustainability and protect our friends in the water,” Kimberley said. “Children are always so interested in my time in Costa Rica. We bring a life size replica of a leatherback sea turtles and their eyes light up when they see the enormity of it. Starting to educate them at such a young age gives me so much hope for the future.”

An adult sea turtle heading back to the shore.

An adult sea turtle heading back to the shore.

Kimberley has been to every continent on Earth, and today works at writing about her journeys around the globe. She still has an itch to head back out on an Earthwatch Expedition. “That trip to Costa Rica really propelled me to follow my passion and stay involved with protecting marine life today. I would love to go on every expedition! Earthwatch has given me the opportunity to do something I would never, ever, be able to do otherwise.”

If you want to join Costa Rican Sea Turtles to help protect baby turtles, Earthwatch still has spots available.

Last Spot to Zimbabwe: One Woman’s Impact on Thousands

Nancy Clark has an incredible passion for helping people. She is a nurse in Vermont, an Earthwatch volunteer, and a founder of the Zienzele Foundation, an organization that helps orphans and their caregivers achieve self-reliance and a better life in Zimbabwe. Her desire to help others knows no bounds. A remarkable chain of events led her to help thousands of people in Africa.

The Last Spot to Zimbabwe

When Nancy’s daughter Megan was preparing for her archaeological dig with Earthwatch in the Caribbean, she left her Earthwatch Expedition Guide on the kitchen table. Nancy picked up the guide and Maternal Health in Africa (which dealt with the nutrition of women and children in Zimbabwe) immediately piqued her interest.

“I called Earthwatch the next day to see if it was possible for me to join, I knew I needed to go.” There was just one spot left. “It was meant to be. The stars aligned and I knew I had to go to Zimbabwe. So that night I went home and told my family I was going to help women and children in Africa, and that was that.”

That summer, Nancy headed to Zimbabwe to conduct health assessments on children and their mothers. She worked alongside Earthwatch scientist Prisca Nemapare, a nutrition professor at Ohio University, and because of Nancy’s nursing background, she became the lead volunteer to handle the health assessments. “I felt like such a valuable volunteer. Talking to the women about what they were eating, how much water they had, how they grew food, their living conditions. It was just all so inspirational for me.” Nancy came home from her trip, moved by the women she worked with, but also extremely motivated. “I knew I couldn’t just be done. My work there was only just beginning.”

Nancy playing a game with some local boys in Zimbabwe

Nancy playing a game with some local boys in Zimbabwe

Nancy didn’t wait long once she was back in Vermont to book her next trip. “I got in touch with Earthwatch, and Prisca and the next summer I went back to Zimbabwe, this time as a team leader for five weeks coaching volunteers and helping the same women.” These voyages to and from Zimbabwe lit a fire in Nancy, that there was something greater for her to contribute to the world. In 2000, she organized a group of nurses from Vermont to take that trip with her.

Not Getting Bogged Down By Politics

At that time, the political conditions in Zimbabwe started to deteriorate, and Nancy’s return trip was almost halted due to Earthwatch’s concern with sending volunteers into an unstable region. (Read last week’s Unlocked article, Safety in Science: How We Prep For Volunteers).

A local family working together on one of the Zienzele garden projects.

A local family working together on one of the Zienzele garden projects.

“I was still in close communication with Prisca so I decided to go on my own,” and throwing caution to the wind, Nancy returned to Zimbabwe. “That trip was incredibly eye opening for me, because all of the women we had relationships with were now taking care of all these orphaned children. Whether the parents had died of AIDS, or malnutrition, there was literally an orphan epidemic.”

Teach a Woman to Fish, Feed Her For a Lifetime

“I felt like I was in over my head,” Nancy said about the overwhelming reality of the situation. “We have to do something. This is why we are here.” Prisca and Nancy then brainstormed the ways they could help this community, and also how the community could help itself. “You know that saying, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime?’, Prisca and I thought of ourselves, we need to teach them sustainable business practices so that no matter if we are here for two weeks, five weeks, five months, they can survive on their own. And that is how we came up with the Zienzele Foundation.” Zienzele means “do it yourself, be self-reliant” and Nancy and Prisca taught these women just that. They even created implementable business plans for the community. “The women realized they knew how to grow vegetables, but didn’t have seeds or fertilizer. They knew how to sew, but didn’t have fabric or sewing machines. They knew how to make traditional Zimbabwean baskets, but didn’t have anyone to sell them to.”

Prisca and Nancy sorting and buying baskets

Prisca and Nancy sorting and buying baskets

Nancy and Prisca supplied the women with necessary tools, like seeds, fertilizer, sewing machines, thread, and needles, with the plan and hope that they would supply resources only one time, and the women would then sustain their own businesses.

“In 2000, we started with two basket-making groups and are up to 23 now. Prisca and I bring them back to the United States and sell them at craft fairs and on our website. The profits from those baskets alone sent 900 kids to school last year, and have sent over 5,000 children to school in all. We started with four garden projects and are now up to 38! The gardens provide food for the women and then whatever is left over, they sell at local markets. Way back when, we started with one sewing project, and today we have nine. They make clothes for their families, sell clothes to the community, and make all of the school uniforms.”

Nancy at a workshop education women on HIV/AIDS

Nancy at a workshop education women on HIV/AIDS

Today, Nancy returns twice a year to Zimbabwe to hold workshops about HIV/AIDS and nutrition, and the Zienzele Foundation launched a new project that allows U.S. families to partner with families in the community where a child is the main provider.

I asked Nancy if she ever thought she would embark on a completely new journey – another Earthwatch Expedition perhaps? She laughed and said that although if it weren’t for Earthwatch, she never would have met Prisca and this whole journey probably never would have started, “take a look how deep I am in in Zimbabwe. Can you imagine if I took off for Thailand or South America? What would happen then? I don’t even want to think about it!”

While Maternal Health in Africa is no longer an expedition funded by Earthwatch, the organization continues to support many programs in Africa. Earthwatch can’t thank Nancy enough for all the incredible work she’s done worldwide, and for sharing her amazing story with us.

Side by Side: Earthwatch and Local Communities Conserve the Amazon

Julie Hudson, head of Sustainability in Equity Research at UBS, recently embarked on a two-week expedition aboard a riverboat in the Amazon with Earthwatch scientist Dr. Richard Bodmer and his team of volunteers to work with local communities on his long-standing rainforest conservation effort.

Julie shared with us a firsthand account of how this community of people is assessing the human footprint on the plants, animals, land, and waterways in this region, and taking steps in the name of conservation.

Conservation Efforts in the Hands of the Local Community

Both in my professional and personal life, I have felt a pull towards conservation. This has taken me to some far-flung places on Earthwatch Expeditions. It worries me that in some places, conservation gets a bad name. This may be because seemingly bossy individuals come to developing countries and tell them what’s good for the environment, disregarding local traditions. The refreshing thing about Earthwatch Expeditions is that scientists and volunteers work together with the local community, implementing field experiments and trying out new approaches.

copyright: Julie Hudson

Local experts teaching volunteers

Volunteers board a riverboat in the Amazon to work alongside a biologist, a local field expert in wildlife, local ecology students, and other Earthwatch volunteers at the largest protected floodplain in the Amazon. This floodplain (an area next to a river) is home to thousands of people who live along its banks, and houses a diversity of plant and animal life. Some of the human residents of the forest are leading conservation work throughout this area, and our Earthwatch team arrived on a restored riverboat to aid in that mission with the help of Dr. Richard Bodmer and his research team. As many others before us, we came to support of these community-based conservation efforts by collection information on the plants and animals here.

The team setup of a scientist, local expert, students and volunteers, allows for great multitasking. The local expert is the most likely to spot better-disguised animals, the volunteers’ many pairs of eyes make data collection easier when the wildlife in question won’t sit still, while the scientist makes sure the data are properly collected, and students serve as the scientists of the future. Earthwatchers, briefed and trained in the field, bring several pairs of hands to lighten the workload of gathering data.

The amazing thing about this particular area of the rainforest is that locals in the community have been given ownership of wildlife management plans, and continue hunting for food without putting vulnerable species at risk. These local experts work together with conservationists to identify species that are resilient to hunting, and then create resource management processes to protect the vulnerable. The local hunters using these processes are able to keep records indicating how the species are doing. Success can be assessed when locals and scientists work together to make changes based on the feedback collected. Scientists turn this data into standardized units to understand what is happening to animal populations.

A Day in the Life: Volunteers Assist in Efforts

Throughout our time aboard the boat, the team worked on both water and land, focusing on fish, dolphins, birds, monkeys, and the alligator-relative caiman to evaluate the abundance of each species. Field work here is a rich experience. Birds, monkeys, and dolphins are counted, caiman are measured and returned to the water, and fish are caught by self-sustaining methods, counted and thrown back in, or occasionally put on the dinner table. We work side by side with the local community to ensure data collection on this expedition is as non-invasive as humanly possible.

For us new arrivals, what is caught on fishing trips is an experience in itself – we found local species of ancient cat fish with an exoskeleton, a large numbers of piranhas, and even a replica of the prehistoric lung fish that took the first steps on dry land millions of years ago.

Not only were the sights incredible, but the sounds and smells were something you can’t even imagine. One morning, we heard what sounded like a football crowd in the distance, which turned out to be hundreds of red howler monkeys. Another day the sound of large raindrops falling on leaves was actually thousands of cormorant wings beating off the water as they fed on fish.

copyright: Julie Hudson

Birds feeding along the waters of the Amazon.

Earthwatch Volunteers Support Invaluable Amazon Conservation Initiatives 

Earthwatch scientist Dr. Richard Bodmer explained to volunteers that the most important factor in creating these conservation plans for communities combines planet and animal biology with the economic reality of the region.

The Amazon River, ten times larger than any other, is the most powerful river system in the world. Scientists suspect that climate change may be disrupting this system and the impact of changes in rainfall patterns from thousands of miles away could be catastrophic for the plants, animals, and humans here. In years to come, we may see ourselves responding to an environment that is changing so rapidly that vital resources of food and water would be compromised. Collaborative conservation in which plant, animal, and human priorities are balanced, has never been more urgently needed.

copyright: Julie Hudson

A sunset along the Samiria River banks.

A big thank you to Julie for sharing her expedition story with us and for boating along the Amazonian Rainforest with Earthwatch to better understand local conservation efforts. Want to have a hand in this collaborative conservation effort? Donate to Earthwatch or better yet, go on this expedition with Dr. Bodmer and see firsthand how this river feeds everything it touches.

Aside from being head of ESG & Sustainability at UBS, Julie Hudson is a Visiting Business Fellow with the Smith School of enterprise and the Environment, Oxford University. Publications co-authored with Paul Donovan, a senior Economist at UBS: From Red to Green? How the Financial Credit Crunch Could Bankrupt the Environment (Earthscan, 2011) and Food Policy and the Environmental Credit Crunch, From Soup to Nuts (Routledge, 2013).

A Mother’s Love

Earthwatch super-mom Jennie-Jo White has been on 13 Earthwatch Expeditions – two with her daughter, Maude, and two with three of her grandchildren. In honor of Mother’s Day, I chatted with Jennie-Jo about the beginning of her Earthwatch journey and how her love for Earthwatch has transcended from her, to her daughter, to her grandchildren.

The Start of It All

Jennie-Jo’s Earthwatch journey started 26 years ago when her daughter, Maude was selected for an Earthwatch student fellowship. “When Maude was 17, she was picked out of hundreds of students to go on an Earthwatch Expedition to Alaska. She had the most fantastic time and learned so much. Since then, it had been ingrained in my brain that I just had to join one of these amazing trips.”

Jennie-Jo and Maude straddling the equator after their trip to the Galapagos

Jennie-Jo and Maude straddling the equator after their trip to the Galapagos

By a stroke of luck, Jennie-Jo just happened to bump into an Earthwatch team at a teaching conference and her passion to go on an expedition was reignited. “Before I retired, I was a high school science teacher, and was attending a teaching conference. Earthwatch just so happened to be there giving a presentation and after watching the presentation, I headed over to the Earthwatch booth and my energy for going on one of the expeditions was reinvigorated. I signed up to study Killer Whales in Washington State and I’ve been hooked ever since!” That was way back in 1999, and since then Jennie-Jo has taken two trips with her daughter and two more with her grandkids!

Like Mother Like Daughter

After Jennie-Jo’s expedition to study Killer Whales, she asked Maude if she would be interested in going on a trip together. “‘Of course!’ Maude said, she had wanted to go back on an Earthwatch Expedition ever since her first trip.” Jennie-Jo and Maude went on their first trip together to Easter Island to study and preserve the ancient culture there and a few years later headed to the Galapagos to help protect bird species there.
“I have been on two expeditions with my daughter, the first one was to Easter Island and the second one was to the Galapagos. The experiences are just absolutely incredible, and sharing them with my daughter is really special.” Jennie-Jo and Maude realized that they traveled really well together, “Maude is more organized, and I just go with the flow, we make a good team.”

Jennie-Jo photographing a tortoise in the Galapagos

Jennie-Jo photographing a tortoise in the Galapagos

Jennie-Jo’s favorite memory from the Galapagos expedition stems from a conversation she and Maude had with one of the scientists. “One of the scientists on the project was so well versed in the history of the island we couldn’t stop listening to him. Apparently, he knew of an island legend about the catalyst for Darwin’s theory of evolution.” Jennie-Jo further described how the scientist told them of a hundred year old story, “when Darwin was studying in the Galapagos, he was talking to one of the island officials who said ‘If you bring me a turtle shell from any of the Galapagos islands, I can tell you which island the shell came from.’” Jennie-Jo said that Darwin’s theory of evolution stemmed from that conversation, “the fact that turtles from each of the islands had distinct and specific shell differentiations and started the process in Darwin’s brain. His theory of evolution stemmed from this conversation!”

The connection really brought the experience full circle for Jennie-Jo, “the housing where the volunteers stay on the island is the original Black Bear where Darwin originally landed in the Galapagos! It was amazing that we were so close to that history.”

Jennie-Jo and Maude’s mutual passion for the planet meant busy days and fun nights. “We spent out days studying birds and building gardens and our nights making friends with our other volunteers.” And the pair’s hard work paid off. “The scientist on the project only expected us to get a quarter of the way through building this experiential garden,” Jennie-Jo said. “But because we all worked together so well, we were able to finish the entire garden during our two week expedition.” Aside from growing their own mother/daughter bond, Jennie-Jo and Maude built relationships with other volunteers too. “Maude and I always have the most fantastic time when we go on Earthwatch Expeditions and the people we meet become lifelong friends. We develop really great relationships.”

Planning to head to Trinidad this summer with two of her grandsons for the Leatherback Sea Turtles expedition, Jennie-Jo’s Earthwatch Expeditions are her most looked forward to trips. “For me, Earthwatch Expeditions are an opportunity for me to travel to exotic places. South America, Costa Rica, Italy. As a woman, it’s so reassuring to be able to safety travel by myself to these far off places. The scientists and staff on the expeditions are so well versed in the culture, I learn things I about the places I go that I would never learn just taking a trip there. I can’t tell you enough how much I look forward to my Earthwatch Expeditions year after year.”

Don’t you want Jennie-Jo to adopt you? Thank you to Jennie-Jo for sharing your great story with us and Happy Mother’s Day to all the mom’s out there – a big hug from Earthwatch!