Earthwatch: ‘An experience that will always be a part of you.’

By Jan Boal

Author Jan Boal believes in tuning oneself in to the signs from the universe. Her book, “Safari for the Soul,” explores her journey in finally heeding these signs and taking a leap of faith in herself, deciding to travel the world solo. During her year of self-discovery, she volunteered on three Earthwatch expeditions and was profoundly changed.


Author Jan Boal during an Earthwatch expedition.

Author Jan Boal during an Earthwatch expedition.

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” — John Muir

I recently had the absolute pleasure of meeting the staff of Earthwatch Institute at their Boston Headquarters. Not only was I warmed by their sincerity, but I was grateful for their vision and dedication in pursuit of caring for our planet.

In 2011, I volunteered on three expeditions, Blazing the Biodiversity Trail in Brazil, Dolphins of Greece, and Saving Kenya’s Black Rhinos. I was 52 at the time, single and following my calling. I knew it would be like when I went off to college: Anticipation of what was to come, knowing I would be different when I returned, and anxious for all those same reasons along with traveling alone to these far away countries. This was one of the best decisions I have ever made for myself.

Like college and getting an education, it is the same when venturing off with Earthwatch — an education, an experience that will always be a part of you, a broadening of yourself, like a breath of fresh air, a new you. Be prepared that volunteering on an expedition is quite holistic and all-encompassing. You will learn about the animal/environment you signed up for as well as the culture of this environment and its impact and struggles dealing with whatever threatened issue is involved.

 

Black rhinos as seen by Jan Boal on the expedition Saving Kenya's Black Rhinos.

You will experience being around a type of passion we seldom experience, usually only witnessing it in the movies. I am talking about the directors of the sites — these scientists who eat, sleep, and breathe in pursuit of their cause — who do it with such dedication and enthusiasm that once you experience this it will unlock something within yourself.

Admiration and unlimited gratitude is what I felt when I went to sleep each night after returning from my expeditions. I knew these scientists were continuing their calling, their mission in gathering data and saving a part of our world — day, after day, after day, after day.

The hands-on experience, learning something new and foreign, being challenged by this — by the travel, unfamiliar ways, and culture — working on a volunteer team consisting of such a variety of people unknown to you, realization of situation, the direness and frustration of this environmental issue, and the pride and joy you will experience is profound and life changing.

I encourage you to trust in this process and have an experience, a journey of a lifetime. You won’t regret it! Be a piece of the puzzle that helps to solve the problem and save our home we call Earth.

Teen Team Facilitators: From The Field to the Classroom

Teens can spend a summer exploring the planet, growing their brains, all while under expert supervision? I know, it seems too good to be true, but not on an Earthwatch expedition. On each Earthwatch Teen Expedition, young adults work alongside renowned scientists at the cutting edge of conservation research and gain experience studying today’s most pressing environmental challenges. In addition to the scientific staff, each teen expedition features trained and experienced Earthwatch teen team facilitators who offer supervision and guidance throughout the expedition. These facilitators are the key to building a solid group dynamic while ensuring a vital platform for learning and personal development for students. I was lucky enough to chat with ten-time expedition facilitator, Mike Mao.

Mike Mao (far left in red) leads a group of teens in The Bahamas

Mike Mao (far left in red) leads a group of teens in The Bahamas

Currently a math and science teacher at Westwood High School in Westwood, Massachusetts, Mike has been a teen team facilitator ten times, including three teams in just one summer. “I love to travel and I love working with teenagers,” Mike said. “In the past five years, I’ve been on teams in Trinidad, California, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Belize. I like to expose people to science, especially young people.”

Mike previously chaperoned students on foreign language class trips to France and was asked by a fellow Westwood High teacher if he would be interested in facilitating on an Earthwatch expedition. “Since I started teaching, I’d been traveling more during the summers, and on top of that I am an avid hiker and really like the outdoors. I signed up to study leatherback sea turtles in Trinidad and have been hooked ever since. I really loved the experience and it made me want to come back summer after summer. I love to travel, I love to work with the kids, and this was the perfect balance between the two.”

Teens studying coffee plants in Costa Rica (copyright Mike Mao)

Teens study coffee plants in Costa Rica (copyright Mike Mao)

Mike is also able to take what he sees out in the field and use it with his students in the classroom. “I teach math, but a lot of the time I’m able to relate my experiences on an expedition with something that comes up in the classroom.” At Westwood High, there is a course called “Save the World” that allows students the opportunity to study the environment in specific areas of interest. “I will go into those classrooms,” said Mike, “and talk about my experience with Earthwatch. It helps to give the students perspectives that things like this exist, it makes it more relatable. Tagging sea turtles in the Caribbean? I’ve done that. It makes it not so far-fetched for them.”

04 Fieldwork-c. Dr. Sam Burgess

Teen team examines a leatherback sea turtle on the beaches of Trinidad (copyright Dr. Sam Burgess)

Mike continues volunteering and has plans to continue facilitating on Earthwatch expeditions. “I just really love doing the expeditions and have plans to do as many as I can. I’m actually in talks to go again this summer. But I can’t brag, there are some facilitators who have done more than twenty! These expeditions are a really incredible experience, and not just because working with the kids is so rewarding, but because I am actually learning something. I come back from facilitating each time just amazed at everything I have learned through the experience.”

This summer, Earthwatch is sending teen teams (and Mike!) out in the field to participate in exciting hands-on research. From studying the effects of climate change on wetlands in the Canadian Arctic, to examining leatherback sea turtles as they lay their eggs on Trinidad beaches, Earthwatch expeditions reach many corners of the world and encompass a variety of interests for adults and teens alike. Interested donors can sponsor a student fellowship or set up a tax-deductible Expedition Fund to help teens raise money in their schools and communities to join an expedition. To learn more about Earthwatch Expeditions, visit the website.

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Volunteer cheers after a successful day of research in Madagascar (copyright Joel Quimby)

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.

Nature’s Equilibrium Isn’t Monkey Business

There’s a reason scientists and volunteers are tracking chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest in Uganda – and it’s not just because National Geographic put Uganda in its list of Top 20 global destinations.

Group of Sonso community chimpanzees.

Group of Sonso community chimpanzees.

Chimpanzees are an endangered species, decreasing at unsustainable rates. Many chimpanzee troops in Uganda are under long-term study to fully understand these population declines and the steps needed to reverse the trends. Yet, a recent census indicates the chimpanzee population within the Budongo Forest Reserve could be on the rise.

While the Budongo population increase is clearly great news for the primate, a bigger family comes with a higher price. A possible result stemming from this suggested population increase is a higher demand for fruit from trees in the forest, the same fruit that forms the basis of a natural chimpanzee diet. With other studies indicating that the number of fruiting trees is decreasing, this may mean not enough fruit to go around for all the chimps! This may contribute toward forcing chimpanzees to expand their search for food beyond the forest, and into local farms. And when farmers have their crops raided, they aren’t happy. This causes conflict.

Primates on the farm.

Primates on the farm.

Conflict Evolves Between Humans and Chimpanzees
This is where participants on Tracking Chimps Through The Trees of Uganda help solve one of nature’s puzzles. One of the research topics at the Budongo Conservation Field Station within the Budongo Forest Reserve is to examine the species conflict between humans and their closest living relative, the chimpanzee.

Lucy Bruzzone is a Project Manager for Earthwatch, and recently returned from Uganda where she observed chimpanzees and other primates that inhabit the forest first-hand. Lucy manages 16 different expeditions for Earthwatch, and has traveled to locations across the map, including Borneo, Thailand, the French Alps, and the Scottish Hebrides visiting projects. This was her first trip to Uganda, and she helped bring this local story and its research needs to life.

Lucy Bruzzone, Earthwatch Project Manager, Tracking Chimpanzees.

Lucy Bruzzone, Earthwatch Project Manager, Tracking Chimpanzees.

“The original research question from Earthwatch lead scientist and, ecologist, Dr. Fred Babweteera, came about from the results of long-term research being conducted in the area on forest ecology. Data collected in the last 20 years on tree phenology – fruiting and flowering cycles – have shown a decrease by 15% in the total number of trees producing fruit in the last 15 years. This raises the question of why? And what are the implications? How has this impacted the primate populations and in turn the local human population? If primates can’t eat the fruit, what is their main food source? Where would they go to supplement their diet? Do they forage at different times or places? Do they raid people’s crops more often?”

Crop-raiding by primates is a well-known problem and a serious contributor to human-primate conflict, and these are questions researchers must consider when investigating. Lucy continued:

“We are hopeful that with research help from volunteers, the project can help us better understand the impact of the decreasing fruit abundance, and this will help to inform management strategies in collaboration with the National Forestry Association that manages the Reserve. Such strategies will hopefully enable chimpanzee and humans to live together in harmony, in their shared environment.”

Evolution Took Years, and So Does Chimpanzee Data Collection
If these changes are being seen across the Reserve, researchers want to identify why the changes are happening so they can make recommendations in their management strategies to address them. If the changes are actually localized to the original research area, this may be due to specific tree species, microclimate or other environmental change in the area. Understanding all this will be key to the management strategy created and recommendations made. And the answers don’t come over night.

“There is a unique long-term data set here that researchers started looking at in the 90’s. Primates have fixed home ranges and rarely move about, so it is possible to study the same troops and groups that were studied back when data was first collected to see if any changes in habits have occurred linked to changing fruiting patterns. Equally, the team at the Budongo Conservation Field Station has recently expanded their research area and more hands-on help is needed to collect the data to answer these questions. This is where Earthwatch volunteers help.”

Lucy explained further.

“The BCFS wants to see if the changes they’ve identified in their local area of the forest are unique, or if they are being seen across the Budongo Forest Reserve. By helping to collect data on tree flowering and fruiting, insect populations, chimpanzee and monkey diets and crop raiding, Earthwatch volunteers can help investigate the situation, and hopefully help resolve it.”

Chimpanzees in the trees of Uganda.

Chimpanzees in the trees of Uganda.

Every five years, there is a census that estimates how many animals there are in the Budongo Forest so that population trends can be monitored and the causes or impacts of these trends can be investigated. With thorough research and subsequent management strategies, it is hoped that human-primate conflict in the area can be reduced and forest health improved. In the future, research results should lead to a positive outcome for both local communities and primate populations around the Budongo Forest Reserve.

The next census is in 2015, so there is plenty of research to keep everyone busy until then. We hope you can join us in the forest.

Assuring Volunteers Can Safeguard Dolphins

Before Earthwatch sends volunteers into the field on an expedition, there are a ton of details to arrange. Caroline Dunn is an Earthwatch program manager who conducts pre-fielding visits so that volunteers can be assured a once-in-a-lifetime experience, while scientists can be assured that research gathered meets their needs. Caroline just returned from Costa Rica where a new expedition will take place in 2013: Safeguarding Whales & Dolphins. Her experiences need to be shared!

Photo ID'ing Bottlenose Dolphins

Photo ID’ing Bottlenose Dolphins

Caroline used to live in Costa Rica. She first went there for Outward Bound in 1999, and then studied there for a semester while in college. She followed that up with three more internships there. Since graduation in 2003, Caroline’s returned about once a year to visit friends and enjoy the beauty of the country. But the pre-fielding trip was her first visit on behalf of Earthwatch.

“Since I’ve been to Costa Rica several times since college, I was pretty comfortable returning. But I had never been to Gulfo Dulce where this expedition will take place. It’s like the tropical paradise you see in postcards. It’s completely remote. You take a puddle hopper plane to get there, and you don’t see many visitors. It feels really untouched. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and in contrast to other places in Costa Rica that are well traveled by tourists. The tourism and crowds hasn’t happened yet in Gulfo Dulce.”

I asked Caroline to describe her time there, and what her responsibilities were.

“The primary purpose of a pre-fielding trip is to conduct risk assessment, venue assessment and to train scientist on working with volunteers. For instance, are the accommodations clean, and how many people will be in a room? What are the vehicles that will be used for transportation? Do they all have seatbelts? Are the boats in good condition? Do they have enough life vests? What is the captain like? We also like to build relationships with the scientist, who in this case is Lenin Oviedo.”

While that sounded interesting, I must admit, I was more curious about the dolphin research.

Safeguarding Dolphins in Gulfo Dulce
Examining dolphin behavior is longitudinal research, research conducted over time, with the hope of gathering enough data to help provide evidence to support a marine protection policy.

Male Bottlenose Dolphins in Gulfo Dulce

Male Bottlenose Dolphins in Gulfo Dulce

 Behavior Sampling
“The way it works is we cruise around in a boat, which was extremely pleasant because the water is calm and flat. We’d scan the water and stop every half hour, or whenever we’d see dolphins. When we saw dolphins, we’d record their location via GPS, the time, and what they are doing. Perhaps they were foraging for food, or mating, or traveling – these are names of the behavior events that scientists use. The dolphins could be resting, or playing. We’d get a sense of water conditions and what the dolphins are doing. We did this in several areas to identify critical habitat so that Gulfo Dulce can ultimately be better protected.”

Photo ID of Dolphins
“One of the reasons this is done is to identify individual dolphins and determine if the dolphin populations that use the Gulf are contained. In other words, these dolphins fully depend on the Gulf, all year long, because it’s their home.  Identifying individual dolphins also helps to identify diseases and help find the source to mitigate the cause. For instance, disease could be caused from run-off of agricultural chemicals from nearby coastal development into river mouths where dolphins hang out. Or, dolphins could bring it back to the Gulf when they return from migration.”

Focal species of dolphins (photo credit: Lenin Oviedo)

Focal species of dolphins (photo credit: Lenin Oviedo)

Longitudinal Research Goes Full Circle
“It really is a full circle. There is the Gulf and the dolphins. And there are the individuals who own the accommodations. Their son is field team leader on the expedition and helps with the research. And the lead scientist met the accommodation owners while doing research. And there’s the captain of the boat. The area is just so important to the community. Everything is so intertwined. And the volunteers will get to experience it all.”

Building El Chontal from the Ground Up
“A gentleman named Jorge and his wife Susi own and operate El Chontal, which are the accommodations where guests will be staying. They are also the parents of David, the field team leader on the expedition who support Lenin Oviedo. Jorge had grown up there on a farm in a tiny town with less than 10 kids in the local school. There isn’t much tourism because it is so removed from the ports.

One day, a foreigner on a kayak pulled up looking for a place to stay. Susi didn’t want to turn him away. Later, Susi thought maybe she could do this on a larger scale. So Susi and Jorge together built El Chontal, personally building all the cabins and planting the gardens. It’s rustic, and artistically very beautiful. They blow a conch shell when it is meal time, and you go and eat at their house. Susi is an amazing cook, making typical Costa Rican meals, and never the same thing twice. Their location is used by international visitors from around the world, largely who are there to do dolphin research.

Cabin and Garden at El Chontal, Built by Jorge & Susi (photo credit: Christine Figgener)

Cabin and Garden at El Chontal, Built by Jorge & Susi (photo credit: Christine Figgener)

Meeting the Lead Scientist
“Lenin Oviedo met Jorge and Susi while doing field research there in 2007 and they’ve been friends and colleagues ever since. Lenin is enthusiastic and laughs constantly. He is eager to share his research, and it is clear that while he is from Venezuela, he has bonded with all the locals. He takes care of everybody on the project, and gives credit where credit is due.”

The Captain and His Dolphins
 “The boat you take to scout dolphins and whales is called Tobago, and its Captain is also named Tobago. He is highly respected and skilled. When there is an emergency, people call him instead of the Coast Guard. In the community, people even consider the dolphins ‘his dolphins.’ When other boats come along, they ask for Tobago’s permission before they approach them. People radio to him all the time: ‘Tobago, I saw your dolphins over here, or over there.’ He has enabled several PhDs to come out of Gulfo Dulce, because without him, many of them couldn’t have completed their research. And of course, he brings you little pastries every day out on the boat.”

In speaking to Caroline, what struck me was how amazing her experience was, all while still in the process of perfecting the details for volunteers and their upcoming experience. I can only imagine what this expedition will be like come March, once details have been fully vetted, and the whales return from their migration to join the dolphins in the Gulf.

(Wait about 15 seconds to see dolphins leaping! Sorry for the lack of sound. Video credit: Caroline Dunn)

7 Instances of Earthwatch Being Thankful

Earthwatch has enjoyed another year of inspiring connections, reaching out globally through educators, companies and public volunteers while continuing to inform environmental policy. And frankly, we couldn’t have done it without Earthwatchers like you.

  1. 3,153 volunteers joined an Earthwatch Expedition and contributed 141,518 hours of research – Individuals ranging from teachers, to students, to people looking to make a differenceduring their time off all dedicated their time and money to work alongside professional scientists to help tackle pressing environmental challenges that matter. Thank you!

    Earthwatch Volunteers on Shark Conservation in Belize (photo credit: Hannah-Blake)

    Earthwatch Volunteers on Shark Conservation in Belize (photo credit: Hannah-Blake)

  2. More than 1,800 individuals and organizations have made donations to our Annual Fund – These generous contributions made at events from New York to London or via tradional channels via online, check or phone all support scientists and volunteers in the field, produce research outcomes, and provide experiential learning opportunities for many audiences while raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. Thank you!

    Earthwatch Gala in New York City Event with CEO Ed Wilson with Jorge Colmenares, Bill Moomaw and Kevin Anton. (Photo credit: Watermark Photography)

    Earthwatch Gala in New York City Event with CEO Ed Wilson with Jorge Colmenares, Bill Moomaw and Kevin Anton. (Photo credit: Watermark Photography)

  3. 276 corporate partners have built a relationship with Earthwatch – These organizations have worked with Earthwatch to help develop their internal staff and external customers by participating in programs to help fund and conduct research. Thank you!

    Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts & Charles River Watershed Association in Boston.

    Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts & Charles River Watershed Association in Boston.

  4. 193 scientists and 152 field team leaders have helped oversee research programs this year – No Earthwatch project would be possible if not for the dedicated individuals who work tirelessly to plan and lead them, often with incredibly tight resources, to help make the world a better place. Thank you!

    Lead scientist from one of more than 50 Earthwatch Expeditions, When Archosaurs Attacked and Reptiles Ruled Texas. (Photo credit: Arlington Archosaur Site)

    Lead scientist, Derek Main, from one of more than 50 Earthwatch Expeditions, When Archosaurs Attacked and Reptiles Ruled Texas. (Photo credit: Arlington Archosaur Site)

  5. More than 100 employees and volunteer staff – These folks come in to work every day in offices all over the globe with a passion to make the world a better place. Whether they create programs, help make sure that the public is aware of and getting involved with all that Earthwatch does, or work behind the scenes, these folks (and my colleagues) need to be celebrated. Thank you!

    The Earthwatch Boston office - each in costume as their favorite Expedition.

    The Earthwatch Boston office – each in costume as their favorite Expedition.

  6. The 110,000 Earthwatchers who stay involved with our organization every single day – Whether you read this Unlocked blog, our bi-weekly Extras newsletter, or share pictures or ideas on our Facebook or Twitter pages, without brand ambassadors like you, Earthwatch wouldn’t be able to get its message out there. Thank you!

    Earthwatch on Facebook - Just one of many ways Earthwatchers communicate with us and each other every day!

    Earthwatch on Facebook – Just one of many ways Earthwatchers communicate with us and each other every day!

  7. To our Board, advisors, and any other humans or animals we may have overlooked, thank you for your ongoing support – We couldn’t have done it without our entire Earthwatch family.

    Thanks for helping across all our programs, including wildlife, like the Giant Pandas in China.

    Thanks for helping across all our programs, including wildlife, like the Giant Pandas in China.

Thank you!

A Penny For Your Thoughts

Supply and demand. That is how most vacation packages are sold. If there are a few openings and a lot of interest, price goes up. If there are many openings and not much interest, price goes down.

Earthwatch Expeditions are neither vacation packages, nor tourism trips. If you want to hug a koala for a photo op, Earthwatch may not be for you. But if you want to traverse the Great Otway National Park while conducting valuable research on koala habitats to understand the impact of climate change on their population, you might find Earthwatch to be a unique opportunity. As a result of this difference, the way Earthwatch arrives at cost for its more than 50 expeditions all over the world varies significantly from how the travel sector creates its prices. It’s a science of its own.

Earthwatchers Conserving Koala Country in Australia

Earthwatchers Conserving Koala Country in Australia

The Average Cost is Anything But Average
A standard length Earthwatch Expedition ranges from $825 to $4,675 – that’s £525 to £2,550 for those of you in the United Kingdom. This cost, called a “contribution” since Earthwatch is a non-profit, is in many cases tax-deductible (in the U.S. at least). Thus, the true cost to Earthwatchers can be 25% to 33% less, come tax time, depending on what tax bracket you fall in, and assuming you itemize your donations.

Breaking Down an Expedition
About 57% of the contribution goes as a Field Grant to the scientists managing your Expedition. This varies based on the duration of the expedition and the research being conducted.

Typical costs include supplies, equipment, research permits, rent, utilities, and the hiring of local cooks or drivers, as well as food, accommodation, and local transport costs. On Snorkeling to Protect Reefs in The Bahamas for instance, some of the costs include transect tapes to map and measure coral, laptops, satellite imagery, fish tags, ID books, and flow meters.

On one wildlife project, I was surprised to learn that a set of radio collars to track large animals costs $6500!

Tracking Jaguar With a Radio Collar in Brazil

Tracking Jaguar With a Radio Collar in Brazil

Earthwatch costs incorporate much more than a traveler would get from a tour operator. Still, there is an expectation from participants that their contributions should be similar.

We are constantly walking an incredibly fine line: Trying to keep the cost of participation accessible to the public, versus not undermining the research itself or the amenities for the public volunteers. Earthwatch is constantly fundraising to increase support for its projects, thereby keeping volunteers’ contribution to the overall research costs at a manageable level.

In some instances, a portion of Field Grant costs are underwritten by a corporate sponsor or generous donor who contributes money to help fund the expedition costs. For instance, if $10,000 is underwritten on a project, a portion of that can be used to offset the volunteers’ contribution, or to fund other elements of the researcher’s project, such as much needed equipment or additional staff.

20% is spent on safety and welfare measures.
It is critical to conduct political, meteorological, and physical risk assessments, as well as create and manage health and safety procedures, 24/7. Earthwatch must also assure research scientists are fully trained on these measures.

12% is spent for Earthwatch to promote and provide information on Expeditions.
The more volunteers who join a project, the more successful all aspects of that project will be – from the team dynamic, to the amount of data collected. Our website and Annual Research Guide are two of the key ways in which we reach the public.

8% is spent on preparing volunteers for their Expedition.
This includes helping volunteers choose and sign up for an expedition, collecting and carefully reviewing each volunteer’s forms, preparing and providing expedition Briefings before participants head into the field, answering all volunteer questions, ranging from travel itineraries to clothes to bring, and working to ensure Earthwatchers are thoroughly prepared for their Expedition experience.

3% is spent on medical and evacuation insurance, travel insurance, and offsetting greenhouse gas emissions of travel.
For instance, if participants leave a carbon footprint from jet fuel used to travel to an expedition, we offset that carbon by investing in wind farms, biomass energy, or other community projects.

New research projects have challenges of their own – and Earthwatch often introduces up to dozen new research projects per year. It typically costs between $45,000 and $80,000 to start up a new project. Since contribution costs typically do not cover all costs related to starting a new project, Earthwatch must actively raise money from other sources to cover set-up costs so they are not passed to our volunteers.

Discovering What Else Goes Into the Cost of an Expedition
To solve some of the mysteries that still remained for me personally tied to Expedition contributions, I spoke with Stacey Monty, a Business Planner at Earthwatch who oversees Expedition budgets. I asked Stacey what some of her biggest challenges were when finalizing the budgets with our scientists.

“We set our volunteer contributions based on the overall research costs, spread over how many people we expect to join. Many of our expedition costs are fixed, meaning they are the same no matter how many people join a team. For example: we cannot buy one-third of a boat, house, laptop, or flight to bring research staff to the site. So if fewer volunteers sign up, there is actually greater cost per person. Predicting how many volunteers will join next season’s teams is the most challenging piece of the puzzle. We look at historic volunteer bookings, changes to the research, travel trends, and geo-politics. For instance, if an area gets bad press and the public perceives instability, we will decrease our projections of volunteers.

As another example, if we decrease the number of days of an expedition due to volunteer feedback, we may assume there will be greater public interest, that we’ll get more people, and that we can possibly charge less overall.

Also, because of the nature of field work, it can be hard to predict costs. Sometimes researchers aren’t exactly sure what they want to do until they see results from the prior field season, or complete a given activity. This is especially true when costing a first-year project. Project budgets can change quite a lot in the second year.”

Earthwatchers Measuring Terrapins with a Large Caliper

Earthwatchers Measuring Terrapins with a Large Caliper

Since there are so many projections in developing final costs, it struck me that there might be risk. I was curious to what extent.

“There are many variables in play when it comes to determining costs and setting a contribution that will cover those costs – while still being affordable from the public’s perspective. If we don’t recruit as many people as we thought we were going to recruit Earthwatch suffers financially. Hopefully, this is offset by programs where we recruit more volunteers than we expected.”

At the end of the day, demand clearly still plays a role. Potential Earthwatchers can choose from other volunteering options during their time off. The hope is that they recognize that a contribution to Earthwatch has a real impact on environmental questions being asked by researchers all over the world , will provide an experience of a lifetime, and is worth every penny.

Those wishing to support Earthwatch with a contribution may do so at http://www.earthwatch.org/getinvolved.