Committed to exploring some of the most delicate ecosystems on the planet, divers find themselves in a unique position as witnesses to the ongoing climate emergency and habitat change. And the more we learn about our impact on the environment, the harder it feels to justify another lavish dive trip. But what if we told you that, instead of actually having a negative impact on the environment, you could actually help protect it? Well guess what? Through ZuBlu’s Ecoventures, you can!
Read on and learn more about sustainable tourism, citizen science, and how you can explore and restore by taking part in an ecoventures project.
Ecoventures? What are they?
Ever find yourself dreaming of beautiful far-flung destinations and day after day of incredible underwater exploration - only to have the dream quickly shattered once your inner eco-warrior adds up the cost to the environment?
As ocean-enthusiasts, it can be difficult to balance our passion for dive travel with our desire to live sustainably. Luckily, ZuBlu’s Ecoventures puts the power of sustainable tourism in the hands of everyday divers, by providing them with a hand-picked selection of conservation holidays and marine research internships around the world. Through these highly sought-after opportunities, travellers can devote their next dive holiday to:
- Supporting the preservation and rehabilitation of marine ecosystems
- Protecting threatened species
- Contributing to conservation work or collecting vital data
- Exploring extraordinary natural landscapes and immersing themselves in local communities
- Kick-starting a career in marine conservation
- Surrounding themselves with dive professionals and marine biologists actively working to research and conserve the marine world
Ok, but what exactly is sustainable tourism?
To put it simply, Ecoventures are a way to travel more sustainably. But what even is sustainable tourism? Well, the fundamental principle of sustainable tourism - often referred to as eco-friendly travel or sustainable travel - is to make a positive impact on the destination and the local people, without damaging the natural habitat or cultural heritage. For us divers, it's helping to conserve the reefs we love to explore, appreciating the lifestyles of locals, supporting resorts that make a difference, and keeping our impact to a minimum. And, when combined with the means to offset the carbon created from the flights, your dive trips can and should be considered sustainable.
At ZuBlu, we believe it's possible to make a positive impact when travelling - one that has the potential to outweigh the costs. In fact, that's the entire concept ZuBlu was built on. As the driving force behind tourism, travellers have the ability to vote with their wallets, by only booking eco-friendly tourism companies that adopt sustainable business practices or prioritise the preservation of local environments.
The role of citizen science in marine research
As the name might suggest, citizen science is simply scientific work carried out by members of the public - non-professionals who nonetheless, contribute valuable scientific data. Since the 1970s scientists have tapped into the power of citizen scientists to gather information on an incredible range of subjects, and produced significant results. Citizen science is usually completed under the direction of professional scientists and institutions, and might involve volunteers joining expeditions or lending their time to train artificial intelligence algorithms. And, in the age of ubiquitous technologies such as smartphones, apps and the internet, the potential for everyday citizens to participate in research autonomously has never been greater.
Studies on the reliability of citizen science have proven it no less accurate than professional research. Plus, with many vigilant eyes on the ground - or in this case, underwater - gathering data from different, interconnected environments in all corners of the globe, it’s possible to gain a much broader understanding of the health of our oceans. With the development of cloud apps and data management software, scientists now have the means to obtain, curate, and analyze huge amounts of data. This also means marine conservation volunteers have the opportunity to continue participating in data collection after their project has ended through online databases such as eOceans, Manta Matcher, Wildbook of Whale Sharks, Ocean Sunfish Research, Elasmobranch Indonesia, and many more.
How to find the right trip?
With so many incredible marine conservation holiday opportunities out there, it can be hard to find the perfect one. Figuring out what you are most interested in is often the best place to start. Perhaps you’re crazy about coral? Or keen to do some shark spotting? Do your concerns revolve around ocean plastics? Or do you want to engage people through education?
If you have one key research focus you can’t wait to get your teeth into, then the location of the programme may not matter. But, if you’re all about the beaches, and want to work on your tan while giving back to the environment, then consider starting with your desired destination, and work from there.
It’s also worth remembering that a lot of volunteer holidays provide a certification or qualification at the end. These certifications - or even just the experience - can be used to enhance your resume, or count towards university or college requirements. So find out what these requirements are, or what employers might be looking for, before starting your search.
The length of the programme is another key factor in choosing the perfect eco volunteer trip. Two weeks is often the minimum, but in our opinion, it’s rarely enough. How many new jobs have you started, and been fully-trained, within two weeks? Well volunteering is very similar. As you’re entering a new environment and role, allow yourself time to learn and get comfortable - that’s when the real fun starts. We recommend at least four weeks, so you can really get involved in the different aspects of the project. Plus, programmes often get cheaper the longer you stay, as your time as a volunteer becomes more valuable once you’re fully-trained.
Finally, you’ll want to take a careful look at what’s included as part of your internship or volunteer opportunity. Make sure you understand what’s expected of you, the sorts of tasks you’ll be performing, and most of all, what you will and won't have to pay for - plus any cool little perks like free merchandise!
If you’re still in any doubt, it’s always worth digging a little deeper. Talking directly to the organisation is a great way to get a feel for their vibe, and to decide if it’s right for you. Or, ask to talk to previous participants and alumni for honest feedback on the experience.
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Who can join marine research internships and volunteering projects?
The bottom line is, these programmes are for everyone - you don’t need to be a scientist or a diver to make a difference. In fact, having a completely different background can be very useful to a project. Whether you’re an accountant, engineer, graphic designer, or gap-year student, these resourceful businesses are masters at utilising the skills you already have. And while diving with a purpose does require a certain degree of skill, most projects accept all experience levels and are happy to train you up to be a research diver. So don’t be scared to state your experience - or lack of it - during the interview process. These programmes are looking for passionate, friendly and enthusiastic individuals, not seasoned scientific divers.
While most volunteer opportunities are open to all, it’s also possible to find programmes tailored towards specific types of travellers. You’ll find programmes customised for groups, couples, solo travelers, teens, over 50s, marine biology A-level students, and many, many more.
Why do I have to pay to volunteer?
We all know diving can be expensive and, unfortunately, that doesn’t change just because it’s for a good cause. NGOs and non-profits often work with razor-thin margins, and while many receive grants and funding, they also rely on the physical and financial support of their volunteers. In any case, if you’re devoting your time and energy to a particular project, you’ll want as much of it’s funds spent on research and development as possible, right? So it makes sense to pay your way. And most organisations will happily give you a thorough breakdown of how your programme fees are used.
Normally, travel, accommodation, food, and diving will be your responsibility. While the cost might seem a little daunting, it’s a great way to immerse yourself in the local lifestyle - checking out accommodation, hiring transport, and tasting new foods are all great ways to meet friendly locals and make useful contacts. Besides, when compared to the cost of a regular dive trip - particularly one that lasts a month or more - an internship or volunteer experience generally offers much more diving for a lot less money.
How to fund your trip
These incredible volunteer opportunities often come out better value for money than a standard diving holiday. So if you’re a regular dive tourist, why not simply reallocate your savings towards a marine conservation internship abroad? But still, not everyone can save the money required to spend several weeks doing volunteer work for marine biology projects. As a result, more and more environmentally-friendly divers are using sites such as Kickstarter to fund their trip - after all, it’s for a good cause. With these donation-style campaigns, little by little, a little can become a lot, and you’ll be surprised how charitable people are in the name of science. Or, if you’re a student, consider approaching your university for support, as these institutions often have money allocated towards research, and could even be willing to offer you a grant!
Types of projects
Often relying on limited resources to tackle complex issues, there’s no one-size-fits-all description when it comes to marine research internship programmes. So when choosing what type of opportunity you’d prefer, remember that the lines can be a little blurred. But don’t worry, this just makes them all the more interesting.
Programme vs expedition
First of all, you’ll need to understand the difference between programmes and expeditions. A programme is a long-term project undertaking ongoing research, that might offer flexible start dates and a steady-stream of volunteers, making it easy to customise the duration to fit your availability. An expedition, on the other hand, is generally a shorter project with specific research goals and fixed duration. Expeditions can be either liveaboard or land-based with scheduled start and end dates.
Potential areas of research
The marine environment is massive, covering around 70% of the earth and plunging kilometres below the surface. So, needless to say, the potential for research is nearly limitless. Below are a few key areas that individual projects may focus on.
Biodiversity is a sign of a healthy, flourishing ecosystem and is often used as a marker by conservation organisations. Marine life volunteer programmes focussing on biodiversity might include a wide range of activities such as studying rare and threatened species, documenting the effects of Marine Protected Areas on local fish populations, or monitoring and tackling invasive species.
Oceanography is a broad topic studying the physical, chemical and biological features of the ocean - past, present and future. This might seem like an umbrella term for marine research in general, but it’s more focussed on processes within the ocean and how the ocean habitat has changed - and will continue to change - throughout time. The effect of the climate crisis on our oceans is one of the fundamental aspects of oceanography today.
We all know marine pollution is a growing issue. From huge oils spills and island-sized garbage patches, to miniscule microplastics, the ocean is under constant attack from pollutants. Tackling marine pollution can take many forms, including monitoring water quality, removing debris, or studying the effects of different pollutants on marine life
Destructive fishing practices are one of the biggest threats to the marine environment. Bottom-trawling, long-lining, and dynamite fishing are all known to damage habitats beyond repair and kill non-targeted marine life, while fish farms can release diseases, antibiotics and other pollutants into the ocean. But, when fishing is done responsibly, marine life can often thrive. Understanding how damaging certain practices are, as well as how well-managed fisheries can benefit fish and fisherfolk alike, is the first step towards more sustainable fishing industries.
What sort of work will I be doing?
Run by passionate ocean-enthusiasts, most programmes will employ a variety of conservation techniques at their disposal. This means there are often many different ways you can get involved with helping to protect the environments you love to dive. We’ve outlined a few of the possible tasks you’ll take part in below.
If your project involves field surveys you’ll be getting out and in the thick of it, collecting data from different habitats such as coral reefs or mangroves. You’ll have a chance to get hands-on with a bunch of scientific monitoring equipment including quadrats and transects while you observe, take notes, or photograph your surroundings and the species found within them.
Frequently used while studying marine mammals and other large marine species, opportunistic sightings is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. When certain species are encountered, often by chance, the sighting is recorded - either in a logbook, by phoning a hotline, or through mobile applications like Whale Alert or Whale Report.
Image and video recording analysis
While technology has helped to advance many research processes, they still often require plenty of man-hours to extract the data. Analysis of images and camera recordings is a time-consuming yet vital process that is easily done online or in-house by volunteers.
Collecting samples is one of the more obvious tasks that can be done by volunteers and interns. Samples could include anything from sea water and sediment, to seagrass, algae and marine organisms - helping researchers study an almost endless list of topics.
Tagging marine life is one of the most exhilarating fields of marine research to get involved in, and is critical to learning more about many elusive and migratory species. The tags gather data such as location, depth and more, providing valuable insight into species behaviours and population health. During tagging projects, volunteers can get involved in many different ways, including helping to catch and release the animals.
Restoration, replanting, and clean-ups
Reef restoration and coral replanting projects have become common in many dive destinations around the world. There are different techniques in use, but most involve collecting broken, free-floating fragments and attaching them to an artificial reef. Coral reef conservation volunteers and interns can easily learn the techniques needed to collect, attach, and even maintain these corals as they slowly develop towards a healthy reef.
The results of a research or conservation project can take many forms. Full-blown scientific studies may be published as articles or peer-reviewed papers, and can eventually lead to policy development. Other projects may strive to push behavioural change, encouraging stewardship through education and leadership. Whatever the end result, you can rest assured that all contributions - no matter how big or small - play their part in helping protect the oceans we love.
What to expect
Much like embarking on a new career, your marine research internship or volunteer opportunity will inevitably involve some training. Dive courses may be on the cards, especially if you have limited prior experience, or if your role will require performing skilled tasks underwater. Activities such as attaching corals to substrate or photographing reefs using quadrats can require perfect buoyancy and composure beneath the waves. You’ll also have to learn about the different methodologies and techniques you’ll be using, and how to log and analyse your results. Finally, if you’re starting a volunteering opportunity or marine conservation internship abroad, you may have to learn some new language skills. The basics will get you by, but the more you learn, the more you’ll get out of the experience.
While at times it might feel like it, remember, this isn’t your typical holiday. You’re there to get a job done - one that you, and everyone else there, is passionate about. So be prepared to work hard and get your hands dirty. As new volunteers you’ll be doing some of the least skilled jobs, but don’t take this to heart, you’ll be part of an energetic team, with each person contributing to the end goal in their own vital way.
Food and accommodation
We always recommend shared accommodation during your marine life volunteer programs. Not only is it the ideal space to meet like-minded people, but you can also create invaluable connections if you’re embarking on a career in conservation. Try to go in with an open mind and you’ll get much more out of the experience - and that applies to food, as well. If you’ve done any dive travel in the past, you’ll know one of the best things about heading to a new destination, aside from the diving, is sampling the local cuisine. Be prepared to try different things, you’re sure to find something you love.
During your programme you’ll be expected to work hard, but you’ll have time to yourself as well. When you’re not working, you’re free to do as you please, so sit back, relax, and enjoy. Or, why not use this time to further enrich your experience and gain a deeper understanding of the destination? Explore the local communities, learn about their lifestyles and cultures, or embark on land adventures such as hiking in search of native flora and fauna.
Already know what kind of opportunity you’re interested in? Then search ZuBlu’s carefully curated list of Ecoventures for your dream trip - filtering by country, date, and marine life with our unique search tool. Or, if you’re still not sure, get in touch with our team for more expert advice, and we’ll have you exploring and restoring in no time.
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