Whether you’re searching for marine biology internships or trying to pin down the perfect volunteer abroad experience, there are hundreds of ocean conservation initiatives to choose from around the world. With such a huge choice on offer, you can be confident that your dream volunteering opportunity is out there - it just might take some time to find. 

We’ve written this article to help speed things up. We’ll walk you through all the top considerations to keep in mind while looking for an assignment, including the differences between internships and volunteer positions, shore-based operations vs expeditions, different areas of interest, and the type of tasks that might be involved.

Want to know more about taking part in ocean conservation? Check out our guide to marine conservation volunteering abroad.

Marine biology internships vs volunteering - what's the difference?

While the two terms are often used interchangeably, there are actually some distinct differences between overseas internships and volunteer projects. Typically, an internship is a programme that you choose to participate in to develop your skills in a trade or profession. In some cases, internships are also used to help students earn credits towards their degrees. Internships are often longer than volunteer assignments, with projects generally seeking participants for weeks or months.

Volunteer projects, by contrast, are intended to offer hands-on experience for people who just want to help out. These tend to be shorter assignments that incorporate holiday activities with work for a well-rounded trip abroad. Some opportunities can serve both purposes, with interns and volunteers working side by side on the same project, with some participants counting their time toward college credit or job site training, and others just enjoying the experience.

To some, an internship might suggest you’ll receive a small payment in return for your labours, while volunteering implies you’ll be giving your time for free. But, when it comes to conservation, neither is quite correct. In fact, you’ll likely have to pay for the opportunity to volunteer. While this might sound counter-intuitive, volunteer projects and internships abroad often ask for a participation fee to contribute towards their costs. These payments help offset programme expenses, such as your food and lodging, rather than leaving non-profit organisations to pick up the tab. And, if you are working toward a college degree or other certification, your university may charge a fee for participation or transferring your credits.

It’s also worth noting that programmes may choose to use one term over another for a variety of reasons, such as local translations or participants’ visa requirements. If in any doubt, don’t hesitate to contact the project organisers to clarify your expectations.

Bazaruto Center for Scientific Studies - Mozambique
Bazaruto Center for Scientific Studies - Mozambique
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Bazaruto Center for Scientific Studies

BCSS is an innovative platform, hosting the first permanent ocean observatory focused on multi-ecosystem time series research in Africa. The facility opened its doors in 2017 to address core scientific and conservation needs in the Bazaruto Archipelago, and to use its strategic location and data to support environmental management at a local level, facilitate regional collaboration and contribute to international scientific programs. This presents many opportunities for you to witness megafauna like sharks and whales from up close, to join research expeditions and dive and tag sharks, collect invaluable data and to analyse sea and learn about permaculture – all while staying on an idyllic island off the coast of Mozambique with a team of like-minded environmentalists.

Participating in projects or expeditions

Some opportunities for volunteers and interns concentrate the efforts of the participants on a single location, while others take place as part of an extended trip - an expedition. 

Expedition can help maximise your experience. These trips typically include plenty of time in the water or hands-on experience with animals. Other expeditions follow migratory wildlife, observing behaviour or conducting counts. Some volunteer and internship expeditions might even head to remote regions like the Arctic or follow fishing fleets to record their impact on the local environment. Regardless of their focus, expeditions often cost more than a fixed project, as they will include expenses like fuel and marine park fees in addition to room and board.

If you’re looking for a longer-term internship or volunteering opportunity lasting several weeks or more, then a more ‘typical’ fixed programme might be your best bet. Staying in a single destination for an extended period allows participants to immerse themselves in the experience, often contributing to the programme on a deeper level as a result. These opportunities may not offer the same level of adventure as an expedition, but you’ll still enjoy plenty of engaging activities contributing to a cause that you care about! 

Choosing an area of interest

How exactly are you hoping to help the underwater world? And what subjects are you really interested in? Overseas conservation internships and volunteer opportunities focus on a wide variety of subjects, including working with people in coastal communities, aquatic marine life, corals and plants. Other projects might instead contribute to fisheries management and fighting marine pollution. See our small selection below for inspiration.

Barefoot Conservation - Raja Ampat
Barefoot Conservation - Raja Ampat

Biodiversity, oceanography and fisheries

If you are working towards a college credit or on-the-job training, you’ll find many marine biology internships focused on themes like biodiversity and oceanography. You’ll also discover projects working with local fisheries to preserve our seas for the future. Whilst these programmes also welcome volunteers, they may be more technical in nature, promising less time underwater or working directly with animals. 

Marine pollution

Marine pollution is one of the greatest threats our oceans currently face. So, it should come as no surprise that many scuba diving conservation efforts focus on this challenging subject. These programmes include physically removing dangerous debris - submerged ghost nets and abandoned fishing equipment perhaps - as well as plastic trash on dive sites and beaches. They may also work to educate local communities or take a scientific approach to studying the effects of marine pollution.  

Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme - Maldives
Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme - Maldives

Marine animal conservation

Marine animal volunteer programmes are among the most popular, as they typically focus on charismatic animals like whale sharks, manta rays, and sea turtles. These programmes often involve surveying different species and collecting vital data, but might also include activities such as tagging and monitoring. Occasionally, you may even get to volunteer during marine rescue projects or rehabilitation of injured animals.

Coastal and reef restoration

Coastal conservation projects tend to focus on the ocean’s less conscious organisms, like corals, and other vital habitats such as mangrove forests and seagrass flats. Coastal restoration efforts will generally require less time underwater, while reef conservation volunteer work is a great way to log as many tanks as possible while working as a volunteer or intern. 

What type of work do you want to do?

Would you feel more comfortable working in the field and getting your hands dirty, or indoors in an office or laboratory? Volunteer opportunities and internships alike offer opportunities in both settings. 

Marine life volunteer programmes and internships, for example, might require extensive observation of specific species, as well as sample collecting, tagging, and other underwater work. If you are working with a marine rescue or rehabilitation centre, you might be asked to handle animals, assisting researchers or veterinarians. These programmes also include plenty of work on land, like patrolling beaches, cleaning animal enclosures or habitats, feeding, and species-specific tasks like caring for turtle hatchlings. 

Conservation projects often involve field surveys and population counts, as well as more technical work underwater including dive site restoration, and coral replanting. Dive site and beach clean-ups are also common, as are dirtier jobs like removing large debris and abandoned fishing equipment. You may also be asked to work with or engage members of the local community as well as visitors.

Back on land, scientific assistance is also required, with image and video recording analysis, data collection and collation, and other lab-based work. These marine research internships and volunteer-based efforts don’t necessarily include time in the water, making them more suitable for students working towards their degrees than visitors enjoying a short holiday. 

Want to get involved in marine conservation?

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