As explorers of the underwater world, divers find themselves in the unique position of being witness to changes in the marine environment and habitat loss. And the more we learn about how man is affecting the environment, the harder it becomes to justify another lavish dive trip. Fortunately, there is a way for divers to continue doing what they love, whilst reducing the impact of their travels.
Marine conservation volunteering holidays and internship opportunities are growing around the globe, and represent an unparalleled opportunity for anyone that loves the oceans to travel the world while giving back. We’ve put together a guide that covers all you need to know about marine conservation volunteering, including the types of opportunities available, what to expect from the experience, and tips on finding and funding your perfect trip.
Dive straight in, or find exactly what you are looking for below...
- What is marine conservation volunteering?
- Types of marine conservation volunteering opportunities
- How to find the right volunteer opportunity
- ZuBlu’s Ecoventures
- Why you should pay to volunteer in marine conservation
- What to expect on a marine conservation volunteer programme
- Preparing for your marine conservation holiday
- What else you can do to help the marine environment
Marine conservation volunteer opportunities are the ultimate way to combine travel with your passion for the ocean. As the name suggests, these projects allow people to volunteer their time and labour to help experienced researchers, conservationists, and scientists with on-going research. By joining a marine conservation volunteering programme, everyday people can contribute to and advance the understanding and protection of the world’s oceans and marine life. And, as these projects are often based in beautiful parts of the world, it can also double up as the holiday of a lifetime.
Every project is different, depending on where the project is located and the work being done. We’ve gone into more detail about the types of marine conservation volunteering opportunities in another article, but whether you’re volunteering or doing an internship, there are many common reasons to join a marine conservation volunteer programme. From meeting new dive buddies or steering you through a change of career, to simply travelling the world in a more sustainable way, joining a marine conservation volunteer project is the perfect way to enhance your next dive holiday.
There’s no one-size-fits-all description when it comes to the various types of marine conservation volunteering opportunities and, as projects are usually run on very limited resources, you’ll often find you get involved in many different areas. But don’t worry, this just makes them all the more interesting.
Programmes vs expeditions
A programme is a long-term project with ongoing research that might offer flexible start dates and a steady-stream of volunteers, making it easy to tailor the duration of your stay to better fit your availability. An expedition, on the other hand, is generally a shorter project with specific research goals and a fixed duration. Expeditions can be either liveaboard or land-based with scheduled start and end dates.
Potential areas of research
Covering over 70% of the earth’s surface, and plunging to many kilometres in depth, it’s an understatement to say the marine environment is massive. Needless to say, the potential for research is nearly limitless. Below are just a few of the key areas individual projects might focus on.
Biodiversity is an indicator 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 range of activities that include 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, in the 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 oil 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 or unsustainable fishing practices are one of the biggest threats to the marine environment. Bottom-trawling, long-lining, and dynamite fishing can 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 still 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 you be doing?
Run by passionate ocean-enthusiasts, most programmes will employ a variety of conservation techniques at their disposal - and you’ll have many different ways to get involved with and help protect the environments you love to dive. We’ve outlined a few of the ways you might get involved 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 are 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 you can get involved in, and is critical to learning more about elusive 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 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.
With so many incredible opportunities out there, it can be hard to find the right marine conservation holiday for you. 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 go from there.
It’s also worth remembering that some volunteer holidays provide a certification or qualification at the end. These certifications, or even just the experience, can be used to polish your resumé, or count towards university or college requirements - meaning marine conservation holidays are a good way to spend a gap year. 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 starting a new 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!
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.
It can be difficult to balance our passion for dive travel with a desire to live more sustainably. Luckily, ZuBlu’s ecoventures puts the power of sustainable tourism in the hands of every diver, with a hand-picked selection of conservation holidays and marine research internships. 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
- Getting to know dive professionals and marine biologists working to research and conserve the marine world
Using our unique search tool, environmentally-conscious travellers can discover and book volunteer conservation opportunities from around the world - and once you’ve found your favourite, we’ll put you directly in touch with your chosen organisation.
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, get in touch with our team for more expert advice, and we’ll have you exploring and restoring in no time. Can't wait a second longer? Check out our favourite marine conservation programmes for 2022.
Dreaming of volunteering abroad in marine conservation?
Search and compare from our hand selected impact experiences and make your next holiday count!
Whether you’re applying for a marine conservation holiday, or an ocean-based internship abroad, you’ll probably have to pay for the experience. But, why should you pay to be an ocean conservation volunteer? While this might sound unfair, we all know diving and travel can be expensive and, unfortunately, that doesn’t change just because you’re doing it for a good cause. NGOs and non-profits often work with very small budgets, and while they might 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 its 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 complete 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 local people 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!
Once you’ve found the ideal volunteer holiday opportunity, and you’ve got a plan for how to fund it, you can start looking forward to the good time ahead. But, if you’ve never volunteered abroad before, it can be hard to picture what day-to-day life will be like. So let’s take a look at what you can 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.
When it comes to preparing for your marine conservation volunteering opportunity, it’s crucial to read your onboarding material carefully. The programme organisers know best when it comes to what to pack and what to leave behind, and their on-the-ground knowledge of complex issues such as visas and volunteer travel insurance will be invaluable.
When it comes to packing, the priority is plenty of swimwear or lightweight, quick-drying clothing, along with one or two warmer items for breezy evenings or excursions. As always when travelling, ensure you understand the local culture and religion, and dress accordingly. Comfortable shoes are a must, preferably ones you can both work in and use for activities such as hiking. And, as you’ll likely be working in or around the ocean, a pair of old trainers, water shoes, or wetsuit booties wouldn’t go amiss. A sun hat, reef-safe sunscreen, and a decent pair of polarised sunglasses are also essential to provide protection from the elements.
If your marine volunteering project involves diving, consider leaving the majority of your gear behind, bringing just a mask, computer, and fins. Not only does this save space for other items, it will also help to reduce your carbon footprint and make the trip more sustainable. Check out our five must-have sustainable scuba diving items for inspiration.
A marine conservation volunteering holiday is a direct, hands-on way of travelling more sustainably. But, in the face of unprecedented challenges, our ocean’s also require more significant behavioural changes to maintain an equilibrium.
Citizen science refers to work undertaken or data gathered by members of the public during their activities. Utilising the public in this way creates a huge potential workforce at the disposal of researchers, while accessible technologies make it easy to submit and collate the large volumes of data. When it comes to our world’s oceans, citizen science is an invaluable tool, helping to gather essential baseline data from all corners of the globe. Everyday divers can easily utilise their underwater adventures to record useful information on coral bleaching, water temperatures, and sightings of rays, sharks, turtles, and more. Check out this article for a deeper understanding of ocean-based citizen science and how you can get involved.
We’ve talked in detail about the practicalities of sustainable dive travel elsewhere, so we’ll try to keep this brief. Pack light, taking comfortable shoes, sustainable swimwear, and a few other essentials, but consider buying other items when you arrive. Not only will this reduce your carbon footprint, it will also help support the local economy. You should also reduce your waste wherever possible by using reusable items such as refillable bottles, metal straws, and a cotton shopping bag or two, and letting hotel staff know you’re happy to reuse towels and sheets. Watching what you eat and selecting fresh, unpackaged ingredients will also reduce your waste, while choosing locally-sourced produce will also eliminate unnecessary carbon emissions. During your trip, consider sharing transport when possible, and remember to offset the carbon produced as a result of your flights.
Support sustainable operators
Lastly, you should always look to support sustainable businesses. Before flying, make sure your airline has a strong environmental policy, and consider opting for an economy seat with a budget operator, as these often perform surprisingly well when it comes to carbon-cost per passenger. You can even check whether an airline transports shark fins or shark products, and make your choice accordingly. Organisations such as Green Fins also provide a seal of approval for resorts and dive centres that are taking significant steps towards a more sustainable future, while also producing standardised guidelines for sustainable diving and sustainable snorkelling practices.
Start planning your marine conservation experience
Search and compare from our hand selected volunteer and internship experiences and make your next holiday count!