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6 Volunteer Vacations That Support Ocean Conservation

By Justin Willig

Have you ever wanted to travel and give back to the environment at the same time? Are you interested in visiting incredible destinations, experiencing different cultures, and meeting people with shared interests and values? Are you captivated by seeing wildlife up close, learning about key issues, and participating in hands-on research that can help conserve threatened marine species?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then you may be interested in our volunteer vacations. Oceanic Society’s volunteer vacations offer travelers rewarding, life-changing experiences that combine exploration and adventure with impactful work to help save the environment.

Here are six inspirational journeys where you can give back to nature:
1. Palau: Shark and Coral Reef Monitoring | Rock Islands, Palau

Help study sharks and coral reefs in Palau's Rock Islands.

Known for its vibrant corals, abundant fish populations, breathtaking jungle-capped, mushroom-shaped limestone islands, and pristine aqua-blue waters, Palau is one of the nicest snorkeling destinations in the world. The tiny island nation made headlines in 2015 when they designated almost their entire ocean territory, 193,000 square miles, as a marine protected area.

Researchers in Palau are now studying the linkage between shark abundance and coral reef health. In partnership with the Micronesian Shark Foundation, participants on this snorkel and scuba flexible trip will learn to identify and survey sharks, corals, and reef fish in order to compare reef health in areas of varying shark abundance.

Why we love it: Palau has more than 1,500 species of fish, 300+ species of soft coral, and 400+ species of hard coral—it is stunning! Seeing and studying healthy populations of sharks in the wild is a once in a lifetime experience!

How we give back: The data collected on this trip helps researchers to see if there are any patterns between shark abundance and overall reef health and reef fish behaviors.


2. Belize Ocean Wildlife Volunteer Program and Belize Family Week | St. George's Caye, Belize

See and study endangered marine wildlife in Belize. © Linda Searle

Nestled on a beautiful private island east of Belize City, our volunteer research trips in St. George’s Caye, Belize offer the chance to help study coral reef health and monitor endangered manatees and sea turtles, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, and queen conch populations in partnership with ECOMAR, a Belizean non-profit.

Why we love it: This trip is a fantastic experience to soak in the sun, snorkel, and see wildlife that inhabit coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove forests. One of the highlights is a day spent at Hol Chan Marine Reserve, which is often cited as one of the best snorkeling sites in Belize.

How we give back: The data collected by volunteers adds to an annual report that is shared with the St. George’s Caye Village Council and Fisheries Department. The department uses the data to provide evidence that the area is critical habitat for threatened and endangered species. Our goal is to show that building and maintaining a marine reserve will help nurture coral reef health inside and outside the reserve and protect key threatened species.


3. Puerto Rico: Coral Reef Volunteer Program | Rincón, Puerto Rico

Help monitor coral reef health in Puerto Rico while learning to identify reef fish. © Islamar

Located in the heart of the Caribbean, Puerto Rico’s reefs are rich in biodiversity. Once dominated by agriculture and fisheries, the economy of the sleepy western beach town of Rincón is now driven by tourism. In an effort to protect the area’s beaches, coral reefs, and wildlife from coastal development, the community established the Tres Palmas Marine Reserve in 2015.

In partnership with Amigos de Tres Palmas, our trip helps researchers monitor coral reef health by gaining a better understanding of the issues that impact the local marine species including marine debris, climate change, coral bleaching, and invasive lionfish.

Why we love it: Puerto Rico has beautiful coral reefs, chock-full of schools of fish, elkhorn corals, brain corals, stony corals, and sea fans. The trip offers a fantastic opportunity to experience Puerto Rico’s rich culture, sharpen your reef fish ID skills, become familiar with field techniques used to evaluate the health of coral reefs, and help local scientists monitor the health of the Tres Palmas Marine Reserve. Another highlight is the day spent snorkeling at the picturesque, offshore remote reefs of Desecheo Island.

How we give back: Data gathered during the trip is used to help show that the newly established marine reserve is helping to preserve Puerto Rico’s marine resources.


4. Kenya: Marine Conservation Seva Yoga Retreat | Watamu, Kenya

Enjoy daily yoga and volunteer with community conservation projects in Kenya.

Most people visit the interior of Kenya for a traditional safari to see herds of wildebeest, buffalo, hyenas, elephants, leopards, lions, and rhinoceros, yet few know that the eastern shore is idyllic and lined with beautiful tropical beaches and tranquil hideaways. Just a few steps offshore, Kenya’s waters are home to coral reefs, schools of fish, sea turtles, dolphins, and whales.

Our trip takes participants to the coastal community of Watamu, where our partners, the Watamu Marine Association, have developed marine conservation programs and sustainable tourism projects through community-based waste and recycling management. In between assisting with community conservation projects, we will have a guided yoga retreat.

Why we love it: The early morning and late afternoon guided yoga sessions are extremely rejuvenating. We also love the snorkeling, dolphin viewing, mangrove tours, and artist workshops.

How we give back: Our partnership with Watamu Marine Association helps to support the local community conservation efforts by employing artists, women’s groups, and students. Our volunteers assist with beach cleanups and community reccyling efforts, helping to reduce marine pollution that is a threat to endangered sea turtles, dolphins, and whales that pass through the area.

Added bonus: You can combine this trip with a traditional safari to see Kenya’s famed interior as well.


5. Bahamas: Dolphin Volunteer Research Program | Bimini, Bahamas

Contribute to long-term research on spotted and bottlenose dolphins in the Bahamas.

For more than 20 years, researchers have been studying the behavioral ecology of spotted and bottlenose dolphins in the Bahamas. Our volunteers help assist researchers with a long-term project in Bimini by monitoring underwater and surface interactions of wild dolphins.

Why we love it: It’s a lot of fun to see spotted and bottlenose dolphins interact in their natural environment. Other highlights include snorkeling in some of Bimini’s best known sites, seeing reef fish, corals, sharks, and rays, and exploring the SS Sapona wreck site.

How we give back: Participants provide assistance by recording underwater observations, photographing the dolphins for identification purposes, recording environmental data, and keeping records of dolphin sightings. The data is used to better understand the social interactions and acoustical behavior of dolphins in the area.


6. Whales, Dolphins, and Biodiversity of Southwest Mexico | Guerrero, Mexico

Study humpback whales and dolphins on Mexico's beautiful Pacific coast. © Katherina Audley

Many people think of Baja California when looking to venture to the Pacific side of Mexico, but few know about the equally impressive beauty and natural wonders found in the southern state of Guerrero. Often cited for its charming seaside villages, 17th century architecture, festivals, artwork, and delicious food, Guerrero, Mexico is also rich in marine and terrestrial biodiversity and a hotspot for seeing wildlife.

For the past 5 years, we have worked with scientists and local fishermen to spot, identify, and make scientific observations of humpback whales and four species of dolphins found in the area. Volunteers on this trip help scientists collect key ecosystem data and come away with a wealth of knowledge, including how to identify whale flukes, and how to use drones and hydro-acoustic equipment to conduct field research.

Why we love it: The area is teeming with diverse wildlife including humpback whales, dolphins, sea turtles, fish, and birds. It’s an incredible experience being out on the water monitoring whale behavior. There will also be plenty of opportunities to explore Guerrero by visiting villages, attending village art shows, eating tasty food, touring a cloud forest coffee farm, and exploring a wildlife and mangrove-filled lagoon by boat.

How we give back: Our research will help scientists better understand the population of dolphins and whales that reside in the area. Moreover, by collaborating with fishermen and local villagers, we are fostering a sense of pride in the incredible natural wealth of this region and supporting local stewardship.

Author

Justin Willig is the coordinator of our conservation travel programs. He has an extensive background in marine ecology and policy, and is passionate about protecting species and reefs around the world. Justin is an avid snorkeler and scuba diver, and holds a B.S. in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences from the University of Washington, and a M.A. in Marine Affairs from the University of Rhode Island.