Hurricanes, Zika Virus, Appendicitis: How does Earthwatch Assess Risk and Promote Safety in the Field?

By Dianna Bell

Risk is an inherent part of traveling, and even more broadly, risk is present in every aspect of our lives. At Earthwatch, we’re committed to caring for the safety and welfare of each and every one of our volunteers who dedicate their time to supporting environmental research throughout the world. Whether you’re tracking endangered wildlife in Malawi or responding to a climate crisis in the Peruvian Amazon, unexpected incidents can happen. However, we believe that through careful risk management and diligent planning, Earthwatch volunteers can have a rewarding, educational, and inspirational experience.

Bodmer -Credit Pablo Puertas (11) copy

You might be wondering how, exactly, Earthwatch responds when there’s a safety incident in the field — a medical emergency, perhaps, or a dangerous weather event. How do we assess risks related to terrorist activities near project sites, or threats from disease epidemics, such as Zika virus? To help answer these questions, we’ve collected a few stories of actual incidents that occurred in the field, and the ways in which Earthwatch, our insurance partners at Healix International, and the scientists and staff in the field handled the care of these individuals. We’ve also featured four scenarios related to worries we hear from our volunteers, and what Earthwatch’s response would be in each case.

Volunteer Perspectives:

A Medical Emergency in Malawi

A herd of elephants at the Majete Wildlife Reserve.

A herd of elephants at the Majete Wildlife Reserve.

In the fall of 2015, Patricia Leroy was on the expedition Animals of Malawi in the Majete Wildlife Reserve. She was riding with her teammates in a safari truck, when the vehicle hit a bump, she fell off, landed on her back, and lost consciousness for about three minutes. Despite her traumatic experience, Patricia reflects on Earthwatch’s response to the incident with positivity.

“The group leader made dozens of phone calls and stayed with me [at the clinic] until it was time to go to bed. She came back the next morning to check on how I was feeling and only then returned to the base camp. That day, I was contacted by Healix, Earthwatch’s insurance partner, who wanted to transfer me to South Africa because hospitals there had access to better equipment.

“So I was transferred by air ambulance to Johannesburg airport and from there, directly to a private clinic. I stayed there another ten days, benefiting from physiotherapy every day, until I felt well enough to fly back to Switzerland.

“During this entire period, there was not a day when I was not contacted by people from Earthwatch in Malawi and in the U.S., or by the person from Healix who was in charge of my case. I was very well taken care of, not only medically but also psychologically. Everybody was so kind and helpful. It may sound strange to say this, but I found it an interesting and positive experience!

“I’m now only waiting to have fully recovered to take part in another Earthwatch mission.”

Hurricane Joaquin Strikes in the Bahamas

A volunteer holds a sea turtle on our expedition Tracking Sea Turtles in the Bahamas.

A volunteer holds a sea turtle on our expedition Tracking Sea Turtles in the Bahamas.

When Hurricane Joaquin escalated from a Category 1 to a Category 3 storm within days of the start of the expedition Tracking Sea Turtles in the Bahamas in October of 2015, Earthwatch Lead Scientist Annabelle Brooks worked with staff in the U.S. to ensure the safety of the volunteers.

Even though the storm was due to pass through the Bahamas by late on the day the Earthwatch participants were scheduled to arrive, the field station would be running with very limited staff, the water would be too murky to conduct research, and the roads to and from the airport ran the risk of being flooded.

Earthwatch proactively cancelled the team to avoid safety hazards brought about by potential damage from the storm. The risk, in this case, was too high and the safety of the volunteers was Earthwatch’s priority. The volunteers who were booked on that expedition were offered the option of joining a different team or another expedition of their choosing.

Appendicitis in Brazil

In May of 2015, EY fellow and Earthwatch volunteer Aric Johnstone was trekking through Brazil when he started to experience severe stomach cramps. He was immediately taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with appendicitis.

EY Fellows take measurements of the many species of birds in Brazil.

EY Fellows take measurements of the many species of birds in Brazil.

“Earthwatch was, simply put, remarkable in handling an unexpected emergency trip to the hospital in rural Brazil for appendix surgery,” he said. “From start to finish, I felt completely safe and in good hands while one of my project managers stayed with me night and day for four days until I was released — even at the expense of quality sleep as they only had a small reclining sofa!

“I was also reassured by the fact that Earthwatch performs a comprehensive emergency assessment at all of their sites to know where the preferred hospitals are and to know exactly what to do in emergencies like mine. I really can’t say enough about the care and attention I was provided, and reflect on the experience with great fondness and appreciation of the Earthwatch team!”

Safety Scenarios & Responses from Kim Cassello, Earthwatch Director of Risk Management:

Scenario 1: I am interested in traveling to Central and South America, but I worry about contracting Zika. What are the risks associated with expeditions in this area? Is it likely I will get Zika?

Earthwatch monitors the latest health risks in all of the countries in which we work through several international resources, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). We encourage our volunteers to base their travel plans off of recommendations provided by these institutions.

The Zika virus causes a mild 2-7 day illness in most people with symptoms including low-grade fever, joint pain, rash, headache, and eye pain. The risk of contracting the Zika virus is relatively low for most people, however, there is evidence that its effect on unborn children is more serious. Women who are pregnant or expecting to become pregnant are advised to consider postponing travel to areas where the virus is active due to the increased risk of microcephaly in the fetus.

Scenario 2: I booked an expedition to Kenya, but I’m thinking of canceling due to past terrorism activity in the country. How does Earthwatch monitor this activity and what would happen in the instance a terror attack occurred while I was in the field?

Earthwatch monitors global events continuously via daily health and security updates for the countries in which we work from non-profit and private sources as well as several government sources — including the U.K. Foreign Commonwealth Office, U.S. State Department and Australia’s Smart Traveller, embassy websites, and more. Our scientists and field staff provide another invaluable resource for security information, as many of them live and work in the project regions. They offer an “on the ground” perspective as well as monitor local media.

Earthwatch maintains a Threat Assessment for every country in which we work. This is a country-level assessment of political and security concerns, geo hazards, availability of healthcare, infrastructure and more. Countries and regions in which we will not work due to safety concerns are added to our “No Go” List. Every project also undergoes a Risk Assessment — which is a project-specific evaluation of the site location, any hazards present, and recommended mitigation measures.

exploring lions - two baby giraffes

In the event a security incident did occur, Earthwatch has several resources to help us respond in an effective and efficient way.

First, we advise you to remain in your hotel room and call Earthwatch’s 24-hour assistance line. If you are already at the field site, the Earthwatch scientist would refer to the project’s Emergency Response Plan and call the local authorities as well as Earthwatch’s 24-hour assistance line.

Our 24-hour on-call Duty Officer would then convene the other members of our International Incident Management Team to respond to the incident. This is a team of dedicated and trained Earthwatch staff who are ready to assist in the event of an incident in the field.

Earthwatch will liaise with you, project staff, the appropriate authorities, embassies, and security advisors to stay abreast of the situation and determine next steps. If action is deemed necessary, our Security Assistance Providers Control Risks Group (CRG) would initiate an evacuation. Emergency evacuations are covered under our Travel insurance policy.

Scenario 3: As a single woman traveling alone, I am afraid to travel outside of the country. I worry about being separated from the group due to travel delays. What safety and communications measures does Earthwatch have in place?

Earthwatch has a 24-hour Duty Officer line available to all participants and project staff. The Duty Officer is a trained Earthwatch staff person who is ready to help at any time, day or night. Travel delays are common and the Duty Officer can offer travel assistance, arrange transport to the field, and relay messages to project staff so they will know exactly where and when to meet you.

All members of the Earthwatch family also have access to Healix International, a world-class travel assistance provider. Participants and project staff can call Healix directly or the Duty Officer can do so on their behalf. Healix can help with adjusting travel arrangements, lost passports, medical emergencies and more.

Scenario 4: I am a parent with a teen who is traveling alone for the first time. I’m worried about my child’s safety while in the field. How well are the field staff trained as far as first-aid goes and what kind of background checks are performed?

All teen team facilitators are trained in first aid as appropriate to the project — this includes basic first aid, lifeguard, or wilderness first aid depending on the location, activities and proximity to medical care. In addition, many project staff are trained in first aid as appropriate to the project, but each project is different. On some projects, the personnel are already trained and on others, Earthwatch funds training for key members of staff. Our target is one or two trained staff on each team.

Teen team facilitators and project staff on teen teams undergo background checks which look for any records of criminal or sexual offenses. Background checks are renewed every three years.

Every project has been assessed for risk and has specific mitigation measures in place. Every project also has a detailed Emergency Response Plan in place in the event an issue occurs.

Eisenberg - credit Scott Kania (48) copy

I never came back…

By Luc Bourassa, Alcoa Foundation Earthwatch Fellow

Alcoa is more than a leader in aluminum production; it’s a leader in sustainability. As an Earthwatch partner, the company has created the Alcoa Employee Sustainability Fellowship program, an initiative that sends 25 Alcoa employees per year on weeklong Earthwatch expeditions in Brazil, Canada, and France. The goal of the initiative is to raise employees’ awareness of key climate change and sustainability issues as they relate to forests, carbon, and ecosystem services, and to empower them to become advocates for Alcoa’s commitment to sustainability. In 2012, Luc Bourassa was awarded this fellowship and it changed his mindset in surprising ways.

Alcoa Foundation Earthwatch Fellow Luc Bourassa measuring trees during his expedition in Brazil.

I came back from my Earthwatch experience almost four years ago. In the summer of 2012, I spent a full week in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, measuring trees, counting monkeys, and making new friends.

I came back from Brazil almost four years ago but, come to think of it, I actually never came back. The experience changed me in such a way that I am not today the same person I was when I left. That’s what Earthwatch does to you.

I was one of the lucky Alcoa employees who received the opportunity to join an Earthwatch expedition. The experience is quite unsettling, in a good way. You figure it is going to be all about the forest, the plants, the river, or the frogs… that you are going to learn so many things about monkeys, dolphins, bugs, or plants. You get all excited about a full week out there, unwired.

And then you board a plane for the return home, and it hits you: the experience was actually about you, and about your relationship with the world.

Not a week goes by that I don’t think back to that experience, to the friends I made, many of whom I’m still in touch with today, but mostly about the things I learned that I try to apply in my daily life, at home with my wife Stéphanie and our three kids, and through my community engagement.

Teen fellows Amélie and Myriam with their team on an expedition in Puerto Rico.

Teen fellows Amélie and Myriam with their team on an expedition in Puerto Rico.

Because, once you understand that what happens in Brazil can have an impact thousands of miles from there, and that whatever decisions you make today will bear consequences – small or large – for years to come, you start acting differently. You start worrying about the little things. You see that the needed changes are as much about the big corporations as they are about individual citizens.

You may be just one small piece of the puzzle, but that puzzle is incomplete if you’re not a part of it.

I came back from Brazil wanting to make a difference. I had the strong belief that I needed to pay it forward. To multiply what I received. To awaken young minds and fully engage them in that mindset as they become tomorrow’s leaders.

Elisabeth and Kelsy studied whales and dolphins in California.

Elisabeth and Kelsy studied whales and dolphins in California.

So upon my return, as a board member of a local NGO involved in sustainability issues, I designed – along with Earthwatch staffers – an initiative that would provide funding for two teenagers a year from my community to participate in Earthwatch expeditions. I pitched it to the board, but they had some initial reservations: What difference would two teenagers make? What would they learn across the globe that they could use back home?

I was prepared. Two teenagers a year for 20 years adds up to 40 teenagers – 40 engaged teenagers who will become teachers, lawyers, and city counsellors, who will indeed make a difference! I told them about my own experience: traveling to Brazil gave me context, but the real lessons had been learned from within.

Alexy and Naomie in the Pyrenees Mountains.

Alexy and Naomie in the Pyrenees Mountains.

The board members agreed to a three-year pilot. In the summer of 2013, 2014, and 2015, we sent Elisabeth, Kelsy, Naomie, Alexy, Amélie and Myriam to California (Whales and Dolphins Under the California Sun), the French Pyrenees (Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees), and Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico’s Rainforest).

I put all six individuals on the plane myself and I lunched with all six upon their return. I know that it made a difference in their lives and has helped to shape the adults they are now becoming. They are now Earthwatch advocates. We involve each pair of fellows in the following year’s selection process and they now want the program to grow as much as I do. We were recently rewarded with good news. The board has confirmed funding for a second three-year cycle!

All of that started four years ago in the Brazilian jungle because my employer had – and still has – the belief that we can make a difference, one individual at a time.

And because a seed was planted, took root, and has grown ever since.

I came back from Brazil four years ago, but I never really came back. And I know that any Earthwatch fellow will tell you the exact same thing. Although the names, the places and the stories may not be the same, the change they impart will be.

That’s what Earthwatch does to you.

From left to right: Luc with with Alexy, Myriam, Naomie and Amélie – four of the first six participants.

From left to right: Luc with Alexy, Myriam, Naomie and Amélie – four of the first six participants.

Using Cutting-Edge Technology to Protect the Sharks of Belize

By Dr. Demian Chapman

Dr. Demian Chapman has devoted his career to protecting the sharks around the world, including those living in Belize. He’s teamed up with fishermen and the government to try to strengthen shark fishing regulations and monitor marine reserves. Now he is engaged in the first study of its kind: measuring how long an overfished shark population takes to recover in a newly minted marine reserve, Southwater Caye. He is also investigating other ways that marine reserves affect sharks and their close cousins, the rays. To do this, he will rely on cutting-edge technology.

DEMIAN-CHAPMANMy name is Demian Chapman. I am an Associate Professor at Florida International University and the Lead Scientist of the Earthwatch Project Shark Conservation in Belize. I have been working on a wide variety of conservation-related research topics for the past two decades, but of all of my projects, I probably feel most at home when I am studying sharks in Belize. This stems from the strong sense of family I have developed with the Belizean people, especially my brothers-from-another-mother and research partners Captain Norlan Lamb and First Mate Ashbert Miranda, as well as the deep love I have for this tiny nation in the Caribbean.

I first came to Belize in July 2000. Now, more than a decade and more than 20 expeditions later, I have fallen in love with this country, its barrier reef ecosystem, and its people. Since I was a small boy in New Zealand, sharks have been my passion. When I arrived in Belize, one would only occasionally see sharks in the fish market, and the prices paid for them were modest. This has changed. Today, fishermen are exploiting sharks in Belize almost without any regulation. My team has deployed baited remote underwater videos (BRUVs)—underwater video traps to count sharks and other fish—on reefs where gillnets and fishing are allowed, and found that sharks are nearly absent on these reefs.

Thankfully, there is still hope for the sharks of Belize.

Our BRUV deployments have found robust and thriving shark populations on reefs where gillnets and/or fishing are banned—marine reserves. It is our goal to survey these no-fishing zones and to investigate how and why they are working for shark conservation. We also aim to elucidate the ecological role of sharks through chemical analysis of their tissue. To these ends, we have thrown on our work gloves to deploy BRUVs and catch sharks on some of the most beautiful reefs in the Caribbean.

Nurse release high

Most importantly, we will be communicating our results to the people of Belize so that they can take action. With the help of Earthwatch volunteers, we will ensure that the coral reefs of Belize remain a rich hunting ground for these majestic predators.

Technology in Conservation Research

This year I am really excited to be asking new questions that will involve introducing some new technology to our research portfolio. The answers will address gaps in our understanding of the conservation needs and ecological role of sharks and rays on coral reefs, which will help us better manage these animals in Belize and beyond.

Recent analysis by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has revealed that the world is rapidly losing its sharks and rays. This is a serious problem and may trigger strong changes in ocean ecosystems.

We know very little about the role of sharks and rays in marine ecosystems and how new taghumans affect these roles. Most people have probably heard that the overfishing of sharks on the east coast of the U.S. led to a ray population explosion. The rays then ate all of the shellfish, leading to the collapse of a century-old fishery. Simple right? Well, perhaps not. One study (Grubbs et al. 2016) showed there are a number of substantial problems with this interpretation, ranging from questions about whether sharks eat enough rays, to the rays themselves being unable to reproduce fast enough to match the purported population “explosion.”

Science is now going back to the drawing board to learn about how sharks, rays and humans interact with one another and their environment.

This is where we come in at Shark Conservation in Belize. Funded by Earthwatch and the Vulcan Foundation, and supported in the field by more than a hundred Earthwatch volunteers over the years, we have used BRUVs to survey sharks and rays in marine reserves and fished areas throughout Belize. Our key discoveries have been that Caribbean reef sharks are significantly more common inside Belize’s marine reserves and, as a result, stingrays in these management zones fear being eaten by them. So much so that they avoid going into deeper water where the reef sharks live.

These studies show that human activities like fishing or establishing a marine reserve on a reef can alter local densities of sharks, which then cause shifts in habitat use by rays.

As our project enters its seventeenth field season in 2016, we are going to probe this interaction between people, sharks and rays even more deeply. First, we want to know whether there are reef sharks inside reserves because they spend their whole lives there, living and breeding under a sort of protective umbrella. An alternative possibility is that reef sharks are born all over Belize, but end up concentrating inside reserves where the feeding is good because there are more fish. To answer that question we need to track individual reef sharks from birth to after they mature to see if they spend their lives on the reef where they were born. We will start doing this in the summer of 2016 at Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve (Teams 1-3). This will entail catching young reef sharks and surgically implanting acoustic transmitters. Each transmitter emits a unique coded signal every few minutes that can be picked up by receivers that we will anchor on the reef. The receivers will pick up each shark’s unique signal and record where the individual is and when. The transmitters will last for about ten years, more than enough time to see if the baby sharks born at Glover’s reef grow up there.


Our second question revolves around stingray behavior in the presence or absence of sharks. Our baited remote video data has shown us that the rays mostly stay in the shallows on reefs where sharks patrol the deeper reef. We are interested in figuring out if they feed less and hide more in these areas. To answer this question we will be fitting southern stingrays with accelerometer tags during Teams 3 and 4 at Glover’s Reef (where there are sharks) and Southwater Caye (where sharks are nearly absent due to fishing). Accelerometer tags measure movement.

You might not know this but you are probably in possession of an accelerometer right now. Can you guess where it is?

It’s in your smart phone. An accelerometer makes the screen rotate when you move your VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100phone. This same technology will record the body angle and swimming speed of free living stingrays and tell us how much time they spend hiding or resting, moving, and feeding. We will then be able to see if stingrays living in marine reserves where sharks are still common spend more of their time buried in the sand and less time eating worms, small fish and shellfish. If this is the case, it could alter how rays affect the seafloor and the animals and plants that live there.

As we purchase our acoustic tracking gear and accelerometer tags to take to Belize this summer, I am excited to think that they will help us learn more about the secret lives of sharks and stingrays.

I am sincerely grateful to the Earthwatch volunteers that have helped us get to the point to be able to ask these questions. I also look forward to working with the volunteers that will help us answer them.

You can still join these shark and ray tagging efforts in 2016 and 2017 by checking out our Earthwatch expedition page.

Discover the Top 5 Reasons to Join a Teen Expedition with Earthwatch!

Measuring reef c earthwatchWhether you’re looking to follow your passion or find material for that college admissions essay, our Earthwatch teen expeditions offer a two-week experience that can change your life. But don’t take it from us. Discover the top 5 reasons to sign up for an Earthwatch expedition, according to our teen volunteers!

In 2006, Moria Robinson, then a sophomore in high school, joined an Earthwatch expedition in Arizona, where she studied the relationships between plants, caterpillars, and parasitoids (wasps and flies that feed on caterpillars). Moria, who loves science, loves being outside (and loves bugs!), was overjoyed to discover more about these different levels of the food web. What she didn’t know at the time was just how influential this experience would be. Now, 10 years later, Moria is running her very own caterpillar research lab at University of California, Davis, where she’s pursuing a Ph.D. in biology as a result of her Earthwatch expedition.

Earthwatch expeditions empower teens to tackle some of the world’s most pressing environmental issues. Armed with the support and mentorship of leading scientists in the field, teen volunteers step beyond their comfort zones while contributing to meaningful science. In the process, they experience unique locations and cultures, pursue their passion for science and the environment, and develop lifelong friendships. Some, like Moria, even find a future career path.

Discover the top 5 reasons to join an Earthwatch expedition, according to some of our recent teen volunteers:

2.19 (32)_Diana Eddowes

(1) Find your passion

Earthwatch teen volunteers collect critical research data alongside leading scientists in the field – connecting to nature and the environment in ways that often exceed their expectations. In 2014, Chloe Golde joined Tracking Sea Turtles in the Bahamas, where she was trained in sea turtle research methods designed to better understand populations of endangered green and hawksbill sea turtles.

“This experience showed me how much our actions actually impact our environment. I was able to learn a lot from the scientists’ presentations, the facility we were at, and just being around so many scientists at once who were so willing to share and passionate about the work they do. Being mixed in with kids from all over forced me to open up and boosted my self-esteem. I had a great time.”

(2) Find material for that college essay (or maybe even a future career path)

16 Fieldwork-c. Rowena Millard

As college admissions become more and more competitive, teens are finding new ways to diversify their experiences and develop well-rounded applications. Helen Donovan dug into Excavating a Roman Empire in Great Britain in 2014 and helped archaeologists excavate the settlement of Arbeia in hopes of finding ancient artifacts.

“This experience opened new doors for me in choosing my eventual career path. As a 16 year old with the college application process readily approaching, this trip gave me hands-on archeological experience and an opportunity to work alongside and learn from experts in the field.”

Gil Osofsky joined Shark Conservation in Belize in 2015, which confirmed his love of research and his desire to pursue a career in marine biology.

“I think the most positive impact of this experience was that I was able to confirm marine biology as my intended career path. This expedition allowed me to fully immerse myself in actual research, and it felt good to be helping in an actual conservation effort. It was evident through the briefing and the lectures that the work we did around the island could have a real impact, and that was very inspiring. I was also impressed by the scientists and people I met who were so dedicated to their work and helping the planet.”

(3) Step outside of your comfort zone

10 Fieldwork- c. Kevin McAndrews

For many teens, Earthwatch expeditions can be transformational experiences. These dynamic environments encourage our volunteers to step outside the comforts of home. Myriam Bourassa fielded on Puerto Rico’s Rainforest in 2015, where she helped to survey several different species of birds, lizards, and frogs to determine the overall biodiversity of the Las Casas de la Selva rainforest.

“I think I learned from everyone there, but it has changed the way I see things. In fact, I learned that it is really important to push your boundaries in life. This expedition was a little bit out of my comfort zone and it made me push my limits more than I taught I was able to. The thing is that it is actually pretty great and fun to go out of your comfort zone! Also, we live in a consumer society where everyone wants to own things and don’t really think of all the impacts on our environment. It made me realize how much more we should care about our earth. I think it also taught me to always work for what you believe in, like the scientists are doing, because that is how you make a difference and you succeed. It was a life-changing experience that made me open my eyes to a lot of things.”

(4) Gain a new perspective

Jasmine_group w shark

On our teen expeditions, volunteers are exposed to new cultures, new people, and a new way of looking at our toughest conservation issues. James McErlean developed a newfound confidence after joining the Shark Conservation in Belize expedition in 2014.

“I’m not really the most social kid most of the time, and yet I felt myself actively involved in every conversation with the group, whether recreational or part of the actual expedition. The most positive impact this trip had on me was what I learned. It truly piqued my interests in any types of marine life. And in fact, after I got back home to New York, I switched over one of my classes to Marine Science/Oceanography, and so far I love it. I never would have thought to have such an interest in the ocean.”

Climate Change Sea to Trees at Acadia National Park c earthwatch

Yesenia Ulloa trekked to Climate Change: Sea to Trees in Acadia National Park in 2015 and realized that she could help solve the conservation issues that seem larger than life.

“The most positive impact that this experience had on me is that it left me knowing that I am fully capable of meeting the demands of a field researcher, as it requires tenacity and organization.”

(5) Make lifelong friendships

Traveling a01 Team-c. EWway from home and working together towards a common goal can bond teens in ways traditional summer camp experiences cannot. George Vassilatos learned that friendships born while digging into Roman history, on Excavating a Roman Empire in Great Britain in 2015, can stand the test of time.

“The experience changed my life…The friendships I made on the dig still continue to this day. It also catalyzed an interest in pursuing archaeology as a career.”

For more information about our teen expeditions, check out this recent article from Teen Vogue featuring Earthwatch!

Teachers Take the Plunge for Science

By Bruce Paton

In October 2015 six Australian school teachers spent a week sailing and snorkelling in Queensland’s Moreton Bay in order to give their students a new perspective on the impact human development is having on our environment. The teachers were participants in Earthwatch’s Sailing for Seagrass expedition, assisting scientists in studying the effects of urbanisation in Brisbane, Australia on the marine ecosystems of Moreton Bay. Their students shared the experience through Skype calls, video blogs, and daily posts on Earthwatch Australia’s TeachLive website.

Bruce Paton is the program manager for TeachLive and he shares his experience of the latest expedition.


Team heading out on the speed boat to take seagrass samples.

“Timmy, sit.”

“Shona, I know you’re interested, but you need to stay still and quiet or nobody else will be able to hear what I have to say.”

“Class, everyone wave at Miss McKinley!”*

These are the types of things we heard during a Skype call between teacher Megan McKinley, who was participating in Earthwatch’s Sailing for Seagrass expedition, and her class at Rowville Primary School. I couldn’t help thinking that these were not the sort of things you’d normally hear on a scientific research expedition. Then again, this expedition was not exactly standard.

The reason for Megan’s unusual conversation was that she was participating in the TeachLive program, where teachers assist scientists to research the impact people are having on the environment while using online tools to share this experience with their students.


Megan identifying seagrass through a camera.

Through citizen science programs, Earthwatch helps to transform people’s views of science and nature. One of the reasons that I’m particularly fond of TeachLive is that the amazing teachers who take part spread this transformation far further than we ever could.

Every night, after a hard day of volunteering, the teachers jumped onto their laptops and updated their blogs to be read by students back at their school. They also held Skype video calls where they connected directly with their classrooms, created videos, made maps, and generally involved their students in the expedition in a way that made it feel like we had hundreds of participants rather than just six.

IMG_1127The program helped to open students’ eyes to the connections between people and the environment. It can be a revelation for students to realise that the biggest threat faced by the seagrass beds – which provide vital habitat for dugongs, turtles, and other marine life – is from sediment and other pollution washed into the bay from suburbs located miles from the ocean.

Healthy Waterways, the local NGO that Earthwatch has partnered with for the Sailing for Seagrass expedition, is using the data collected by the teachers and other Earthwatch citizen scientists to create ‘report cards’ for each local government area in southeast Queensland. These report cards detail not only the condition of the municipality’s waterways and the marine ecosystems downstream, but also the threats faced by these ecosystems and the actions that government and the community are taking to address them.

The final reason I love TeachLive – and what really matters most in my opinion – is that it has given teachers a new suite of tools they can use to engage with their students. We reconnected a few weeks after the expedition at an Earthwatch education workshop, and I was delighted to discover that all of the teachers who participated have found ways to incorporate their new knowledge and skills into their teaching. From updating their school curriculum to monitoring their local rivers with underwater cameras, I’m confident that each of these projects will benefit their students for years to come.

TeachLive group photo 2

The six teachers who participated in the expedition were from the left: Micah Wilkins from the Mac. Robertson Girls High School and Peter Girolamo from Galen College in Wangaratta. Front: Jemma Chaplin from John Monash Science School, Tracey Gray from Port Fairy Consolidated School, and Megan McKinley from Rowville Primary School. Far right: Garrett Drago from Williamstown High School.

We have another TeachLive Sailing for Seagrass expedition coming up in October 2016 and I’m really looking forward to meeting more fantastic teachers and helping them to engage their students in geography, science and nature.

To read the teachers’ blogs or to register your interest in the 2016 TeachLive expedition, please visit:

To check out the latest series of Healthy Waterways report cards, please visit:

Earthwatch Australia acknowledges the support of the Victorian Department of Education and Training through the strategic partnerships program. TeachLive is conducted in partnership with the Geography Teachers Association of Victoria.

Mongolia: ‘A Place Full of Treasures’

By Kofi Opoku-Ansah

In September 2015, photographer Kofi Opoku-Ansah and his girlfriend Kim traveled to Mongolia on Earthwatch’s Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe expedition. Kofi’s favorite moments include radio collaring and releasing argali sheep (a male/female pair were named after Kofi and Kim), working alongside Mongolian researchers, students, and horsemen to achieve critical conservation goals, and, on a very personal level, proposing to his girlfriend of four years underneath a rocky mountain near the camp. (Spoiler alert: she said yes!)

A Photographer’s Dream Realized


I’d never been to Asia and was seeking adventure, so joining an Earthwatch expedition in Mongolia was both far enough from my home in London and adventurous enough to meet this need. Given my love for animals and desire to give something back to nature, Earthwatch’s Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe expedition seemed to fit every piece of my ideal expedition.

After a year of planning, reading, and researching about Mongolia, the day finally came
for my girlfriend, Kim, and I to travel to Mongolia for our expedition, where we would focus on capturing and tagging argali sheep.

The excitement was overwhelming when we finally reached Mongolia after a 12-hour flight and transfer in Moscow. A few days after arriving in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, we met our team members for a casual dinner, introduction and briefing before our trip to the camp at Ikh Nart Nature Reserve where the expedition would take place. Traveling on old Russian trains from Ulaanbaatar for seven hours south into the semi stepped Gobi, followed by an hour drive to camp was a nice experience, yet it was only the beginning of our adventure!


Our 12 days at the camp in Ikh Nart was incredible, and we would love to volunteer again in the near future. Meeting people from all walks of life who are working for the same cause was something truly special. Our days consisted of team briefings, cinereous vulture and snake sightings, argali and ibex capture, and walking transects, to name just a few. The organization on this project was flawless. The teamwork and effort by the volunteers and researchers was inspiring.

Working side-by-side with Mongolian volunteer students, scientists from the Denver Zoo, and the Mongolian horsemen proved how greatness can be achieved when working with people with the same conservation goals. In moments like these, language barriers are broken and determination for success becomes the prime focus on everyone’s mind. This is especially true when it involves making a difference in the lives of endangered species.

Our goal as a team was to capture at least five argali and ibexes to be radio collared. Our typical day involved driving to a dedicated area, setting two nets parallel to each other that spanned across 160 meters, and then taking positions to hide (sometimes for hours) whilst the horsemen went in search of the argali and drove them towards the nets. When we caught an argali, a group of us would take blood samples, weigh, record temperatures, attach radio collars, provide water to cool the animals down, and finally release them in a span of only 5-15 minutes.

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Scientists, volunteers, and local staff, including skilled Mongolian horsemen, capture argali sheep by driving them towards nets. They then quickly tag them, monitor their health, and release them back into the wild.

This process required great planning, strategy and cooperation from all team members. There were many idle moments with no action, but with determination and persistence we successfully captured and tagged our target of five argali and ibex within a week.

The Surprise Proposal

Soon after arriving in Mongolia, Kim and I celebrated our fourth anniversary. And I had a Kim_Kofi_Mongolia_proposalsurprise in mind for her. For days, I had been checking and double-checking on the safety of an engagement ring I had brought with me so I could propose to Kim in Mongolia. One morning before our daily tasks, Kim and I went for a walk. Without ever thinking about the outcome if she was to say no, I went ahead and proposed, and with everything I had imagined, she said yes!

We announced the news to the rest of the team during lunch, and received many compliments and well wishes from our team members.


The Earthwatch camp at Ike Nart Nature Reserve in Mongolia

Experience of a Lifetime

My experience on this trip far exceeded my expectations and there were many highlights. Getting engaged, celebrating my birthday, having an argali sheep named after me, seeing a grey wolf, meeting and working with the Mongolian horsemen, going disco dancing in the middle of the Gobi – these are just a few examples.

But the opportunity to do something worthwhile has to be one of the greatest highlights in my life so far.

Many have asked ‘Why Mongolia of all places?’ My answer is, ‘Why not?’ Mongolia is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with its vast lands, nature and archaeology. It is a place full of treasures.

The argali conservation project is a really special one. The researchers and volunteers who take part and dedicate their time and interest in it have worked so hard and have contributed so much – they have made a massive impact in the preservation of these endangered species. I recommend it in so many ways, and I can’t wait to go back in the near future!


Kofi and Kim (featured bottom row, third and fourth from left) and their Earthwatch research team in Mongolia.

Kofi and Kim were so moved by their experience that they now donate 10 percent of the proceeds from their silk scarf business to the Ikh Nart Nature Reserve in Mongolia.

Declining Leopard Populations in South Africa Prompt a Call to Action for Earthwatch

By Dr. Stan Rullman

In November 2015, Earthwatch Research Director Dr. Stan Rullman traveled to the Soutpansberg Mountains in South Africa to join the expedition Conserving Leopards and Monkeys in South Africa. These mountains supported one the highest densities of leopards on the continent. But this is changing, and Earthwatch researchers and volunteers are helping to determine why.

Interesting creature spotted on South Africa project camera trap!

Wildlife researchers around the globe are frequently employing the use of camera traps— 1cameras equipped with motion or infrared sensors—to capture photos and video of elusive wildlife without disturbing them. In some cases, rare species are captured on camera, often to the delight of research teams. In November 2015, researchers Dr. Sam and Katy Williams came across an image of a rather interesting creature, documented for the first time in South Africa. The pictures reveal Dr. Stan Rullman (the author of this blog post) cautiously crawling along one of the swaths the research team uses to assess overall biodiversity and leopard abundance in the Soutpansberg Mountains.

These mountains have historically supported one the highest densities of leopards on the continent. But this is changing, and Sam, Katy, and their advisor, Dr. Russell Hill from Durham University, have asked for Earthwatch’s support to help determine why.

Conflict between humans and wildlife in the Soutpansberg Mountains

2-Lajuma_SAf_mapLeopards are frequently accused of preying on livestock, which can lead to retaliation against these animals. Earthwatch volunteers assist researchers in “ground-truthing” leopard diet by collecting, cleaning, and examining leopard scat to determine exactly what the leopards have been eating. The results of these analyses indicate that leopards are primarily preying upon wild game, which is a good thing (unless, of course, you are a bushbuck).


Leopard diets based on scat collected within the Soutpansberg Mountain, South Africa

But sometimes there is other evidence. A dead calf on a rancher’s land with marks that suggest leopard. An upset rancher calls to Dr. Hill’s team. That is a good thing too, because it shows that their outreach to the farming and ranching community may indeed be working. In the past, there would simply be a gunshot in the night. The team sets up a camera on the calf, to see if the perpetrator returns. And it does. A three-year-old male leopard known as BB.

“We have further confirmation of our leopard population attacking livestock, although our dietary analysis continues to detect no livestock or expensive game. This confirms the need for extensive and ongoing data sets to examine these issues since short-term data sets can be misleading. It also highlights the importance of working with communities to improve their husbandry techniques and construct adequate bomas [protective corrals] for their livestock.” –Dr. Russell Hill

DSC02231Leopards aren’t the only wild animals that impact local farmers. The researchers are also studying several species of monkeys and their propensity for crop-raiding, which occasionally impacts local crop productivity and increases the tension between local farmers and wildlife. While chacma baboons are the most frequently reported raiders, the team has also been habituating troops of samango monkeys and vervet monkeys so as to increase their ability to assess just what these smaller species are actually feeding upon. Earthwatch volunteers have been instrumental in this habituation process—particularly with the samangos. They join researchers in tracking the monkeys on foot through field and forest—an amazing opportunity to spend an intimate morning or afternoon with these primate relatives of ours.

A Hotspot for Biodiversity

In addition to this human-wildlife conflict and mitigation focus, the research team is alsoDSC02271-2 assessing the importance of this rather insular mountain system as a hotspot for biodiversity in northern South Africa. Surrounded by large agricultural areas and game farms in the lowlands, this mountain range is high enough in elevation to grab much-needed moisture from the air, resulting in rich forest pockets, permanent streams and tumbling waterfalls— and a critical supply of water to the more intensively altered landscapes below.

A large array of camera traps is used to determine what species are using this landscape, and Earthwatch volunteers assist with camera deployment, maintenance, image recovery, species identification and numbers. While some of the cameras are located along the rocky dirt roads that traverse the mountain range, most are located away from the roads, resulting in glorious hiking opportunities through this beautiful and wildlife-filled landscape (always accompanied by research staff). What they are finding on those cameras has revealed that an amazing diversity of species are using this mountain refuge, including a rich assortment of medium-sized carnivores like African civets, large spotted genets, black-backed jackals, honey badgers, caracals, and both brown and spotted hyenas. Surprise cameo appearances have also been made by Africa wild dogs and cheetahs—just to keep volunteers on their toes as they scan through the photos. This is just a partial list of species they’ve captured on their cameras which offers a window into the amazing diversity of African species, from a variety of habitats, that utilize this mountain refugia.

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The camera sometimes captures more-than-one species at a time. See if you can identify these rather unusual animal pairings.

Spotting individuals

While leopards are rarely “spotted” (ahem) in the field, just about every camera trap IMG_1038_Fotorphoto logging session brings an excited gasp from that volunteer reviewing the images as a large spotted cat appears on the computer screen (like this one, from the same camera that “captured” me). That prompts the next level in identification: exactly which leopard is it? The team maintains a catalogue of known individual leopards—identifiable by the unique patterns of their spots, not unlike our fingerprints. It is this last component that is revealing the apparent decline of leopards in the region.

Fewer “known” individual leopards are showing up on the project’s camera traps, suggesting a high turnover of the cats in the mountain system. What would lead to that turnover? According to Dr. Hill:

“The trends suggest that conflict [between people and leopards] has increased, which is having a significant impact on the leopard population. This information is critically important from a management perspective.” – Dr. Russell Hill

And based in part on data from Dr. Hill’s research, South African governmental wildlife managers have responded by imposing a total ban on leopard hunting for 2016, giving researchers a chance to assess what specifically might be driving this decline in leopard numbers.


Graph showing the apparent declining number of identified (and identifiable) leopards in the research area between 2008 and 2015.

The cats are also getting caught in snares set for other game, which has led to removing snares found within officially protected areas—an increasingly important task that volunteers engage in. Local community members often rely on procuring smaller animals as a source of protein, though snares rarely discriminate between target species and “collateral damage”, and in many regions, such bushmeat hunting and trapping can reduce species abundance—even those not sought out as sources of food.


Collared leopard with snare around waist. Two weeks after this cat showed up on this camera trap, the radio signal was lost and the leopard had not been detected on camera traps since.

Outcomes and Impact

All that is learned in this critical research gets channeled in all the expected places—scientific publications (see links below), contributions to regional wildlife management plans, conference lectures (including this one) and posters, as well as several student theses and dissertations. But the research teams also share their findings with the local community, through several innovative ways. Field team leader and PhD student Katy Williams compiled the project’s best camera trap images and presented those as a travelling exhibition at local art galleries, shopping centers, coffee shops, and schools, introducing the local residents to the amazing diversity found in the landscapes they call home (a nice fusion of art, science and education).


Katy also wrote and illustrated a children’s book (Hyaena Time) based on her doctoral research on brown hyenas. Earthwatch helped that unique publication get translated into the four primary languages of the region—Venda, se Sotho, Afrikaans, and English (ensuring a broad readership).


All of the research and outreach into the local communities highlights the commitment of Dr. Hill’s research team to work to actively assess and reduce the threats to the leopards, brown hyaenas and primates while simultaneously promoting tolerance for these creatures in the increasingly human-influenced systems they live in. Creative strategies for coexistence—based on sound scientific findings—can maintain (and even grow) the livelihoods of the farming communities, while doing the same for these wild denizens of South Africa. For volunteers, this results in a truly unique, meaningful and engaging African experience, in a magnificent hotspot of South African biological diversity.

To learn more on how you can join the research team, please visit the Earthwatch expedition page.

An Introduction to Earthwatch’s New CEO: Scott Kania

By Alix Morris


Scott Kania recently assumed the role of Chief Executive Officer at Earthwatch. Following a 35-year career in the financial world, Scott is thrilled to embrace his life-long passion for the environment and conservation research in his new role. This week, I had a chance to sit down with Scott to find out more about his commitment to conservation, what inspired him to join Earthwatch, his experience as an Earthwatch volunteer, and his vision for the future of the organization.


When did your passion for the environment first begin?

I was probably about 6 years old. As I recall, my mother read me a book on Smokey the Bear. It was the amazing story of a bear that was rescued by forest rangers from the top of a tree during a forest fire in New Mexico. The rangers wrapped up his burnt paws and took care of him. I remember saying to my mother, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ And she said, ‘You want to be a bear?’ And I said, ‘No. I want to be one of the guys who rescued the bear.’ It was the moment I first recognized the importance of forest conservation. Eventually, that led me to pursue a degree in Natural Resource Management. But jobs were scarce back then. I had bills to pay, so I got a “temporary” job in financial services, and stayed there for over 35 years.

How did you maintain your commitment to conservation while you were working in financial services?

I was a very active volunteer. I looked for every opportunity possible to get involved and make a difference. I was on our town’s conservation commission, our open space commission, I was a charter board member of a non-profit – River’s Alliance of Connecticut, I did volunteer work for the Nature Conservancy. You name it – I put my hand up and volunteered.

As often as I could, I would take my kids along with me. I wanted to show them that I wasn’t simply a financial services person. My passion was around the environment. I promised them that when I left the financial services industry, I would pursue this passion full time. Little did I know that I would soon discover Earthwatch. And when I did, I absolutely fell in love with the mission.


I knew I wanted to do something with the environment and I wanted to connect people to the environment. So when I came across this organization that did exactly what had been in my head all of those years, I was hooked. It was one of those strange things where I didn’t know Earthwatch existed, but I had been looking for it my whole life.

In 2010, you joined an HSBC/Earthwatch collaboration, known as the Sustainability Leadership Program (SLP). What was this experience like for you?

It was my first introduction to Earthwatch, and was the best training opportunity I had in 30 years. The other SLP fellows and I met in Oxford, England. The idea was to support forest conservation efforts and come up with sustainability action plans for HSBC – ideas for creating systems to reduce waste and become a more sustainable company. It was a great program, and it inspired a major career change for me.

I was heading back to the U.S. and ready to change course and pursue something in the environmental field. My HSBC colleagues Matt Robinson and Bill Thomas offered to connect me to Earthwatch. That was the beginning of an important transition in my life. In 2014, I joined Earthwatch as Chief Operating Officer.

In November 2015, you took on a new role at Earthwatch: Chief Executive Officer. How has this change affected you? 

I’ve always felt a lot of responsibility for helping this organization. Becoming CEO has  P1030591
certainly taken that level of responsibility up a notch. For me, it’s about the opportunity to make an impact. I feel that I’ve learned a great deal in my long career, and I believe I have something to offer. And to be able to direct it at something I’m passionate about – it’s a huge opportunity for me. It feels like a natural transition.

You’ve now participated on three expeditions with Earthwatch – Tracking Beavers through German Waters, Tracking Fire and Wolves through the Canadian Rockies, and Exploring Lions and their Prey in Kenya. How did these experiences affect you?

I was so appreciative of the opportunity to connect with people from different parts of the world. Some of my fellow volunteers had been on a number of other Earthwatch expeditions and had a strong passion for the organization. During the “Exploring Lions and their Prey in Kenya” expedition, I took my daughter with me. She also fell in love with Earthwatch and the mission and the people she met in Africa.


Participating on these expeditions also gave me greater insight into the volunteer experience. I tend to look through their eyes now. When I talk to volunteers, it’s so important for me to be able to speak about my own experiences, to really understand what an Earthwatch expedition is all about.

What is your vision for the future direction of this organization?

The mission is very solid, and we’ve upped the game on the research. The projects focus on the right research areas, they’re in interesting locations, and they’re led by great scientists. All of this is critical to ensure a great volunteer experience. We need to continue to keep all of those things in balance.

More broadly, we’re looking at global change, which is central to everything we do. I’d like us to continue to move from getting that critical evidence around impacts to exploring how we can take action. How can citizen science help us to take action to mitigate or adapt to these changes. P1030647

Climate change is real, it’s critical, it’s urgent. Two hundred countries have agreed on it. We need to study its effects AND we need to focus on the actions required to make a difference, and ultimately, to save the planet. That’s a big piece of where we have to go.

A “Peak” at the Importance of Mountain Ecosystems

By Bernat Claramunt Lopez

Dr. Bernat Claramunt Lopez is Earthwatch’s lead scientist for the expedition “Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees.” Bernat works with volunteer teams to assess the impact of climate change on wildlife in the Pyrenees so as to protect this delicate Alpine environment and the species that inhabit it.

Bernat_3“…The mention of mountains conjures images of hiking and skiing, cows and cheese, fresh air and fresh snow.” This quote, taken from a text written by the Mountain Research Initiative, clearly defines a perspective many people have about mountains. The text continues “However, mountains are more than just a background setting for bucolic farms and family hikes”. What does “more than just” mean here? The truth is that mountains provide a notable amount of ecosystem services not only for their inhabitants, but also for citizens living in the lowland regions, far away from them. These services include tangible goods such as wood or water, but also other services that are more difficult to quantify: biodiversity, peacefulness, and cultural heritage, among others.

VIDEO: Bernat highlights some of the volunteer activities and the importance of Earthwatch citizen scientists in helping to protect this critical ecosystem.

One of the most important services provided by mountains is water. It is common (and correct!) to read that mountains are “water towers” that supply disproportionate amounts of runoff to Europe’s rivers in comparison to lowland areas. Similarly, an important proportion of a regions’ hydro-power, a clean and renewable source of energy, comes from mountains. 2015-06-26 06.44.23

Mountains are also centers of biodiversity. For example, European alpine ecosystems above the tree-line cover only 3% of Europe’s area, but host 20% of its native vascular plant species. Mountains are also key habitats for both large carnivores, such as wolves and bears, and large ungulates (hoofed animals).

In an increasingly urbanized and high-paced world, mountains represent crucial retreats where people can recreate, recharge and re-engage with nature and their own sense of self. Similarly, both tourists and people living outside the mountains enjoy high-quality mountain products—such as cheeses, meats, mineral waters, wines—which are emblematic of local cultures and can provide an important basis for mountain economies.

2015-06-26 08.10.37

As with many regions of the world, mountains are experiencing important changes, not only in their physical environment, but also in their social structure. During the last decades, increasing temperatures due to climate change have warmed lakes, rivers and streams; permanent glaciers are melting and disappearing, and runoff and snow cover are dramatically changing. Consequently, water availability, both for humans and for wildlife, is threatened. At the same time, intensification and land abandonment are homogenizing landscapes, increasing the forest area, and reducing the biodiversity of many mountain areas. While agricultural management on economically profitable sites is being intensified, remote areas and those with potentially lower yields are being abandoned.

The Pyrenees are amongst the most important mountain ranges in Europe. Acting as a natural border between France and the Iberian Peninsula, they are part of the Mediterranean basin, and so are exposed to the effects of global change in Mediterranean ecosystems, one of the most threatened globally. Global change models predict an increase of temperatures (especially in the summer and winter) and a light decrease in precipitation—a combination that increases droughts in a region already characterized by drought periods. Moreover, although the amount of precipitation is not likely to change much, the regime will: fewer but more intense rain events will be the rule, not the exception. The effects on agriculture will be noticeable, and we also expect an increased risk of landslides and snow avalanches.

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A series of images captured on camera traps featuring wildlife in the Pyrenees.

How will wildlife respond to these changes? Are mountain societies adapting to them? The Earthwatch expedition “Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees” is an ambitious project that tries to answer these questions. The research includes an intense and complete monitoring of most natural compartments at medium to high elevations. We use different methods to answer these questions, including soil decomposition assessment, surveys of most vertebrate groups (small mammal trapping, camera trapping, and nest boxes), invertebrate biodiversity monitoring, tree growth measurement, surveys of flowering plants living in the snowbeds and of meadows exposed to overgrazing by livestock, and drone flights to monitor the status and health of the alpine vegetation.

One of the most important aspects of the project is the collaboration between the researchers and the volunteers. In particular, we partner with local non-profit organizations and governmental departments whose objectives are to protect or manage the environment. We also collaborate with people who live in this environment, including farmers and tour operators, whose livelihoods are directly impacted by climate change. Volunteers help scientists to gather data during the day, and meet the different stakeholders during afternoon and evening meetings. Together, we identify data-based solutions to cope with global change.

The Top 10 Earthwatch Expeditions of 2015 (according to our volunteers)!

To wrap up 2015, we tallied the evaluation scores submitted by each volunteer after his or her expedition—a measurement of training, safety, support, team dynamic, research contribution, overall satisfaction, and many other factors. Knowledgeable, tireless, and inspiring research staff; the experience of interacting with wildlife and ecosystems untouched by tourists; a feeling of safety unparalleled by other organizations; the knowledge that one person can make a difference in the world—these are just a few examples of volunteers’ expedition highlights.

Below are the top 10 expeditions in 2015, according to our volunteers.

  1. Butterflies and Bees in the Indian Himalayas

Butterflies-and-Bees-in-the-Indian-HimalayasFlowering plants and their pollinators are declining in Himalayan orchards, largely due to climate change. Volunteers are working with researchers to determine the best way to manage these changes to support traditional sustainable agriculture.

“A particularly memorable experience was our meeting on the last day with the villagers of Nashala. We were touched by the warm welcome and their obvious appreciation of how Earthwatch was helping them.”  – Judith and Peter Bird

  1. Conserving Koala Country

Conserving-Koala-CountryIn the Great Otway National Park in Victoria, Australia, the effects of climate change, including increasing temperatures, declining rainfall, and increased likelihood of fire are threatening the habitat of the charismatic koala. Volunteers are helping to research and protect this region in an effort to conserve the species.

“We were well-trained and supported in the field. I learned so much about koalas…and about the environment in the Otway’s. I didn’t expect to learn so much about trees. I’ve been doing canopy checks in the parks in NYC ever since I got back.”  – Joanne Edgar

  1. Investigating Threats to Chimps in Uganda

Investigating-Threats-to-Chimps-in-Uganda As food supplies decline in the Budongo Forest, chimps have begun to raid farmers’ crops, leading to human-wildlife conflict. Volunteers are helping to determine the causes of this decline in food and studying ways to ensure the area can support both farmers and primate foragers.

“Earthwatch expeditions give one access to a region that is unlike any tourist experience. We learned so much on this expedition.” – Katherine Babiak

  1. Saving Joshua Tree’s Desert Species

Saving-Joshua-Tree’s-Desert-SpeciesJoshua Tree National Park in Southern California has seen increases in wildfires, severe storms, and persistent droughts due to climate change. Volunteers explore the beauty and diversity of the desert landscape while studying how climate change is shaping this environment.

“I gained an appreciation and understanding of citizen science that will sustain my enthusiasm for such projects for a long time to come. The staff for this expedition were awesome. They were organized and the scheduling was done very well. The staff members were all excellent instructors, and even more excellent mentors. Also the comradery of the team was exceptional. I would never have thought that fifteen people randomly assembled could get along so well. I hope that all of my future Earthwatch experiences are even half as good as this one.” – Nancy Cook

  1. Trailing Penguins in Patagonia

Trailing-Penguins-in-PatagoniaCutting-edge technology could help to unravel a penguin mystery: where and how do these seabirds forage for food? In Patagonia, Argentina, volunteers travel to penguin rookeries on the shores of Golfo San Jorge to monitor and protect a colony of Magellanic penguins.

“The fact that we were able to work in a remote location and work with penguins is an experience most people will never have and that’s amazing. But the science piece on top was fascinating.” – Nancy Pengra

  1. Uncovering the Mysteries of Ancient Colorado

Uncovering-the-Mysteries-of-Ancient-ColoradoIn a region filled with mountainous cliff dwellings and canyons, volunteers are digging into the archaeology of ancient Pueblo communities to uncover clues about the switch from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

“For me it’s all about the experiential learning and understanding the perspectives of the researchers. They all did a great job teaching us and giving us a sense of the value of the research and the depth of their understanding.” – Briant Wolfe

  1. Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees

Wildlife-in-the-Changing-Andorran-PyreneesIn the high slopes of the Pyrenees (in a location that has now moved from France to Andorra, a small nation sandwiched between France and Spain), climate change is altering the landscape. Here, volunteers are investigating the amazing biodiversity of these forests and alpine meadows to identify conservation strategies.

“I had a vague understanding that climate change has had a remarkable impact on ecosystems worldwide, but after completing this expedition my level of awareness has increased to the point where I am now implementing changes in my life to contribute to mitigating this growing problem.” – Freddy Ramirez

  1. Excavating the Roman Empire in Britain

Excavating-the-Roman-Empire-in-BritainA Roman military settlement in Northern England was once considered to be the edge of civilization. Volunteers are helping researchers to uncover new artifacts that will help to paint a more detailed picture of life inside this Roman base.

“I loved the chance to get hands-on with artifacts, exposing things no one has seen in thousands of years. It left me wanting to learn more about this period in history, and wanting to bring archaeology more fully into my life at home in some way.” – Laurel Schneider

  1. Shark Conservation in Belize

Shark-Conservation-in-BelizeOne quarter of shark and ray species around the world are at risk of extinction. Volunteers in Belize are tracking and tagging sharks, as well as using underwater video cameras to monitor their behavior, to study how marine reserves function to protect vulnerable shark species.

“I grew up loving sharks, and going on this expedition was like living out a boyhood dream. I will never forget touching my first live shark.” – Aaron Hersum

  1. Unearthing Ancient History in Tuscany

Unearthing-Ancient-History-in-TuscanyThe ancient seaside city of Populonia is one of the most important historical sites in Tuscany. Volunteers and researchers are reconstructing the complex history of this city by digging for clues and rebuilding original objects from discovered fragments.

“I was able to touch the past and comprehend its relevance to the future, both my own and that of the world as a whole. I left this expedition as a better person and with a healthier mindset.” – Madeleine Colburn

Science and Politics at the Recent Paris Climate Negotiations

By Alix Morris and Dr. Bill Moomaw

eiffel-tower-c-yann_caradecAfter two weeks of climate negotiations in Paris, nearly 200 nations came together to sign an historic agreement to stem the effects of climate change. On Friday, December 18th, Dr. Bill Moomaw – a climate expert and Chair of the Science Committee at Earthwatch – will be hosting an “Ask Me Anything” event on Reddit – an online forum where he will answer any and all questions about the implications of the new agreement. Join the conversation between 1:00 and 3:00pm EST.

Landmark Climate Agreement Reached

On the evening of December 12th, after 13 days of intense negotiations, representatives of 195 nations arrived at a landmark climate agreement. According to the agreement, nearly every nation will be responsible for cutting greenhouse gas emissions to limit the devastating effects of climate change. While some have described the plan as a breakthrough achievement, others contend that it does not go far enough.

As part of the climate plan, countries will pursue efforts to contain the rising global temperatures to no more than two degrees Celsius above temperatures in pre-industrial times. But is this enough to prevent some of the most devastating consequences of climate change?


Scientists expect to observe the greatest effects of climate change in the Arctic. Earthwatch’s Climate Change at the Arctic’s Edge expedition is measuring these changes in Churchill, Manitoba, situated at the convergence of tundra, forest, freshwater, and marine ecosystems.

According to Dr. Bill Moomaw, Earthwatch’s Chair of the Science Committee and Professor Emeritus of International Environmental Policy at Tufts University, these consequences are already occurring. During an interview with WBUR, Boston’s NPR station, Bill said, “I think there’s a lot to be positive about, but we really need to be going further.”

Island nations are in trouble due to rising sea levels, said Bill. Major flooding is occurring in coastal U.S. cities (a four-fold increase in the last 25 years), and the rate of melting in Greenland has tripled during the last 15 years or so. Two degrees is not necessarily a safe level, he said. But the agreement is a critical foundation for ongoing discussion about how to mitigate the effects of the most significant environmental challenge of our time.


Mountain ecosystems are extremely vulnerable to a changing climate. Earthwatch’s Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees seeks to study and protect this delicate alpine environment from the effects of climate change.

The climate agreement is complex, and many are left with unanswered questions or confusion as to its implications for individuals, for nations, and for the planet. That’s why Bill has agreed to host a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” or AMA event on December 18th from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. EST, where users will have the opportunity to ask Bill any and all questions related to the climate agreement, its relevance, and its implications. Don’t have a Reddit account? No problem. You can easily create one or simply follow the conversation as it’s happening.

Some Climate History from Bill Moomaw:

The science of climate change is complex, and the politics are more so. I have always found the interaction between the two to be fascinating, and remember being shocked as a young scientist that science did not always determine the political outcome of a policy process. I want to share with you the role of science in the outcome of the Paris climate negotiation that just ended on December 13th, 2015.


In the Peruvian Amazon, evidence of climate change is abundant. Earthwatch’s Amazon Riverboat Exploration is helping to develop conservation strategies to protect this ecosystem and its unique biodiversity.

A bit of history: back in the 1980s, a group of scientists convinced some governments that based on their research, the release of heat trapping gases into the atmosphere would heat the earth to a point where there could be uncontrollable and irreversible warming with devastating consequences for all life, including humans. This science prompted two actions. The first was to create the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide scientific input to governments on the science, impacts, vulnerabilities, adaptation, and mitigation of climate change. The second was to negotiate an international treaty, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that was signed by 154 nations in 1992. The Paris negotiations were the 21st meeting of the parties to the original treaty, and its actions both utilized and ignored science in the final outcome.

I invite you to join me on December 18th in a discussion about how science and policy came together and diverged over issues like the 2oC global temperature goal during the recent Paris talks.

If you have questions about the event, please contact us at We hope to see you there!


From Los Angeles to the Arctic Tundra: a Teacher Transformed

By Steve Lux and Dianna Bell

Steve Lux has been a math and science teacher in the Los Angeles area for 28 years. This past April, he found out he had been selected as an Earthwatch Teach Earth Fellow – a fully funded opportunity to conduct research alongside leading scientists in the field. Just two months later, Steve traveled to Churchill, Manitoba, for the expedition Climate Change at the Arctic’s Edge to study the effects of a changing climate on this important ecosystem. Here is the account of his experience:


Steve Lux (pictured in the red jacket) joined a group of teacher fellows to study climate change in the sub-Arctic.

Prior to the trip, I imagined the sub-Arctic tundra to be a frozen wasteland, mostly devoid of life. Flying in to Churchill, Manitoba changed my perspective before we even landed. The entire area is free of ice in the summer, and covered by circular ponds of many sizes and colors as far as I could see. I quickly learned the tundra is a vast complex ecosystem, with an abundance of life adapted to survive the harsh conditions – quite the opposite of what I had expected.

One of my biggest concerns is that humans are changing our environment in fundamental ways without any understanding of where these changes are taking our planet. Humans need to study our planet diligently and make informed decisions based on the results of our research. I was surprised to find that the frogs and fish in the tundra ponds freeze during the winter and come back to life when thawed in the spring. I asked Dr. LeeAnn Fishback, lead scientist on the expedition, to explain the biochemistry behind this. Turns out the frogs have a chemical antifreeze that prevents blood from crystallizing at low temperatures. This chemical has been isolated, and is now used in the frozen food industry to prevent freezer burn in foods. This tiny little frog in the subarctic has a chemical that can enhance the longevity of food for human consumption. Who knew?


The Earthwatch experience confirmed my understanding of the importance of these issues. In Los Angeles, climate change is a “hot” topic, as Southern California is now in the midst of its worst drought ever recorded. The climate itself has become less predictable and more humid over the past several decades (I’ve lived here 51 years). What I will be relating to my students is the importance of scientific research to understand climate change and other conservation issues.

Going to Churchill, Manitoba affected me on a personal level. First of all, the other 10 teachers on the expedition, as well as all the other researchers and staff members at the Churchill Northern Science Center (CNSC), were incredibly kind, caring, intelligent, and fun to be around. Dr. Fishback and her assistants Amanda, Stephanie, Kimberly, and Daniel were all so very patient and knowledgeable. They taught us well, making sure that we all had a positive, fun experience even with the long days of research. We trudged through ponds in the morning, tended to lab work in the afternoons, and attended lectures in the evenings. Seeing how scientists handle research in the field really changed my perspective on the scientific method and how I have been teaching my high school students about science.

Churchill_096 Credit Brigitt Haussamann

The majority of what I learned from this expedition will be incorporated into my science courses. In fact, climate change is going to be the underlying theme to everything I do in all the courses I teach next year. My school is opening a new $20 million science educational facility this fall, and we have purchased a great deal of research grade equipment to be utilized in the new science building for student labs and research projects. I was initially intimidated by all of this new high tech stuff my school purchased, but was gladly surprised to find that almost everything I learned how to use in Churchill were items we have purchased for our students. I can now utilize nearly every piece of equipment my school purchased for our biology and chemistry students. This is very exciting for me!

As far as what we learned about climate change, I will be exposing my students to all of the lecture materials I received from Dr. Fishback and her staff. They gave us everything they had including power points, charts, graphs, images, and even all the data from our research and the methodologies of the research as well. All of this will be incorporated into my future lesson plans.

I returned to Los Angeles rejuvenated and inspired to teach my students about all of the first-hand climate change experience I gained. I cannot thank Earthwatch enough for this life-changing experience.

Check out this video profiling 3 Teach Earth fellows and how they brought their experience back to the classroom.

Earthwatch’s Teach Earth Fellowship Program takes K-12 teachers of all subjects who are passionate about their profession and excited about making a difference in the classroom and puts them directly in the field with scientists and fellow teachers. While on their expedition, teachers learn valuable information and skills that help to promote conservation, environmental sustainability and lifelong learning. When teachers return from the field, they share their experiences with students, colleagues, family, and friends through stories, lessons, and community action.

Can you picture yourself collecting water samples in Manitoba, Canada, or trekking through Arizona studying the effects of climate change on caterpillars and then taking the knowledge you learn back to your classroom and community? If so, fill out our interest form as the first step on your Teach Earth journey!


Tracking Dolphins in the Adriatic Sea

By Brianne Fagan, Earthwatch Intern

Morigenos - credit Tilen Genov - dolphins (22)After spending 12 hours on planes, trains, and automobiles, we arrived at the small, red-roofed, coastal city of Piran for our Tracking Dolphins in the Adriatic Sea expedition. We quickly loaded into the research boat for what Tilen, the lead investigator, called an “icebreaker” boat ride. Shortly after leaving the marina, our small team received a call from the bell tower where the land team was based with the location of dolphins. And just like that we were off, straight into the middle of the Gulf of Trieste, in the northern end of the Adriatic Sea.

A view of Tartini Square and Piran’s marina from the bell tower. A stage is present in the square to host the folklore festival occurring later in the week.

A view of Tartini Square and Piran’s marina from the bell tower. A stage is present in the square to host the folklore festival occurring later in the week.

After half an hour, we encountered our first dolphins who warmly welcomed us to Slovenia with a series of acrobatic jumps and splashes. It was the “evening group,” as the researchers call them – a large group of dolphins that hang out in the Gulf in the later hours of the day. Tilen snapped photograph after photograph of them while the rest of us called out when another one appeared. This wasn’t a difficult task since the dolphins had surrounded us. Amazingly, Tilen began introducing us to them, “That’s Moni right there! Hello, Moni!” or, “That’s Kat at 3 o’clock with her calf!” This went on for about two hours until the sun began to set. It was then that we broke contact with the dolphins and headed back to Piran. It was also then that I was able to take a minute to absorb the last few hours. I was in the middle of the Adriatic Sea, on a boat with a group of strangers, tracking dolphins.

Some of the evening group is spotted jumping and playing in the distance.

Some of the evening group is spotted jumping and playing in the distance.

Morigenos and the Slovenian Dolphin Project

Common bottlenose dolphins are a flagship species not only because of their charismatic personalities, but also because of the role they play within their ecosystem. Dolphins are top predators, and as such, serve as an indicator species. This means that a decrease in dolphin health may be indicative of a change to their ecosystem. Morigenos, the Slovenian Marine Mammal Society located in Piran, established a Slovenian Dolphin Project in 2002 in order to monitor the local dolphin population. Before the launch of this project, there was no evidence or information pertaining to dolphins in the region. In fact, marine biologists did not even know that dolphins even existed in the area!

The researchers are able to identify individual dolphins based on the markings and shape of their dorsal fins which, like fingerprints, are distinct from one another. Once they have photographs of the fins, they add them to a photo-ID catalogue and assign them a name. This allows the team to gather information on population size and structure, feeding and social behavior, site fidelity, diet, reproductive rates, survival rates, and various other parameters that can indicate population health.

Dorsal fins have unique shapes, pigmentation, and markings that dolphins acquire throughout their lifetime. ©Morigenos

Dorsal fins have unique shapes, pigmentation, and markings that dolphins acquire throughout their lifetime. ©Morigenos

The Loss of a Dolphin

An assistant, Jan, surveys the water from the bell tower using Big Eyes - an extremely strong pair of binoculars.

An assistant, Jan, surveys the water from the bell tower using Big Eyes – an extremely strong pair of binoculars.

About a week into the expedition we were scanning for dolphins from the bell tower when Ana, a lead investigator, noticed something suspicious and called Tilen over to take a look. It was an unwanted and dreaded sight for the team – a dead dolphin, bloated and floating on top of the water.

In these situations, the team will collect the animal and contact their veterinary partner who will later conduct a necropsy to determine the cause of death, if possible. Sometimes the dolphin can be identified with its dorsal fin, unless the fin is no longer viable or the dolphin is not in the ID catalogue. The dorsal fin of this dolphin, unfortunately, was too deteriorated to allow identification.

Although the dolphin may have died of natural causes, there are many human-induced risks to dolphins that may result in decreased health or even death. Some of the most common risks are related to boat traffic, toxins, and bycatch. Boat traffic is rarely the direct cause of death for a dolphin, as dolphins are agile and can usually avoid boat strikes. The real problem is that some boats transmit sound at the same frequencies that dolphins use to communicate, resulting in unsuccessful hunting or general confusion. Toxins, however, can directly impact health. High levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), for example, have been found in the blubber of the Slovenian dolphin population, resulting in decreased reproductive success and weakened immune systems. Bycatch, although highly detrimental in some areas of the world, is fortunately a rare occurrence in the area.

Morigenos - credit Ana Hace - dolphins (3)

When Ana and I returned from fueling the boat one day, a couple of local fishermen invited us to join them at a local café. As Ana and the fishermen discussed their genuine fears and hopes for the future of Slovenian waters, I sat back and took in the view, appreciated my company, and reflected on the expedition. Although my time in Piran was over, after all of the field work, the unrelenting heat, the countless hours spent surveying for dolphins, I could safely say that I had gathered a sense of the importance and difficulty of such a study, as well as a true appreciation for the life of a dolphin researcher.

The Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation Supports Community Fellows in the Arctic

By Hannah Marshall

DSC00240Earthwatch volunteers have a variety of reasons for joining expeditions – from a desire for meaningful travel to an interest in science to a passion for the planet. One incredibly valuable group of volunteers are community fellows, local people invited by the scientists to participate in the project. This program, which is supported by generous donors, enables members of the community to actively engage with the research and conservation activities. This program not only helps to build understanding and partnerships between the scientists and the community, but exposes fellows to ways they can incorporate their experience in their daily lives and workplaces.

Since 2000, Earthwatch volunteers from around the world have contributed to field research at a project in Churchill, Manitoba. Churchill perches on the seacoast within the Hudson Bay Lowlands, North America’s largest wetland. The area’s most famous inhabitants are its some 57,000 beluga whales and 1,000 polar bears, earning itself the nickname “the polar bear capital of the world.”

This year for the first time, thanks to the support of The Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, three members of the local community were provided with the funding to participate on the expedition. Prince Albert II of Monaco has a personal interest in the Arctic and has promoted the need to develop The High North in a sustainable way. Prince Albert II’s great great grandfather, Prince Albert I, undertook a number of scientific expeditions to the Arctic, and lent his support, in some cases through gifts or loans of oceanographic instruments, to numerous Arctic and Antarctic explorers.

Earthwatch scientists and volunteers are helping to paint one of the clearest pictures of climate change in the Arctic.

Earthwatch scientists and volunteers are helping to paint one of the clearest pictures of climate change in the Arctic.

Over the next few decades, scientists expect to observe the greatest effects of global warming at high latitudes.

Permafrost underlies 24% of the land surface of the Earth and holds about 50% of the world’s terrestrial carbon (the carbon stored in soil and plants). As temperatures rise and the permafrost thaws, organic compounds begin to decompose, producing carbon dioxide and methane. The release of these greenhouse gases amplifies the effects of global warming. Arctic landscapes will change, and the current plant and animal residents may find themselves unable to adapt.

These shifts in the Arctic will change life for every species there—including humans. That’s why researchers, led by Principal Investigators Dr. LeeAnn Fishback and Dr. Steve Mamet at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) are working hard to understand exactly how these northern Canadian lands and species work together now. The community fellows selected to take part were Barbara Chevre, Sarah Robinson and Matthew Webb. These fellows joined Dr. Fishback, Dr. Mamet, and a number of other Earthwatch volunteers at the CNSC in February 2015.

Volunteers not only support their data collection, they provide meaning and purpose for their work. In Churchill, volunteers have enabled scientists to paint one of the clearest pictures of climate change in the Arctic, so that we can better understand the changes that will eventually take place in our own backyard. The community fellows helped with the research in a number of ways both inside and outside, they took a series of snow samples from the snowpits, the treeline and a tree island.

Earthwatch volunteers outside the Churchill Northern Studies Centre with Dr. Fishback and Dr. Mamet (© Barbara Chevre)

Earthwatch volunteers outside the Churchill Northern Studies Centre with Dr. Fishback and Dr. Mamet (© Barbara Chevre)

Here are a few comments from the community fellows themselves:

I don’t have a scientific background although I have worked in a scientific company before…my contribution to Earthwatch has been my first experience where I actually help science by doing science. I am now convinced everyone can contribute to science.” – Barbara Chevre

“Involvement with this project has shown me that we should maintain funding for projects that collect long term data, and in my work and as a voter, I now look for opportunities to make that happen.” – Sarah Robinson

I was able to establish friendships with many of the team members and it has helped me broaden my connections worldwide. I really enjoyed meeting new people from all different walks of life from across the globe.” – Matthew Webb

The volunteers also praised the support of Dr. Fishback and Dr. Mamet.

“The best thing about this experience is how LeeAnn, Steve and the rest of the staff ensure that everyone gets to experience as much as possible…It’s certainly not every day that you can sample in snow pits during the day, and then tend to the making of an igloo under northern lights after dark.” – Sarah Robinson

Earthwatch volunteers ‘sampling the snow’ in Churchill (© Barbara Chevre)

Earthwatch volunteers ‘sampling the snow’ in Churchill (© Barbara Chevre)

Community fellows are an important part of Earthwatch expeditions. The programme enables local communities to engage directly with the research and it enables scientists to complete their important data collection work. The fellows gain new skills and experiences and they help to provide the other Earthwatch volunteers and scientists with an enriched local experience through their knowledge of the local area.

The funding from The Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation will continue for the next two years, enabling more members of the local community in Churchill to take part in this important project.

Sailing for Seagrass

Kate Aubrey – Earthwatch Australia’s Public Program and Marketing Manager – recently returned from Seagrass Monitoring Expedition in Moreton Bay, Queensland – Sailing for Seagrass. She mapped the seagrass meadows in Moreton Bay with seven volunteers.

There are some things I honestly never thought I would write home about and “seagrass is cool” is certainly one of them. To no surprise to the scientists who dedicate their time researching this underwater world, all seven Earthwatch volunteers joined me in my newfound appreciation of the ocean’s grass.


Seagrass is a flowering plant that has adapted to living in the ocean. That means, it lives its full life cycle, including flowering and pollination all in the harsh oceanic conditions. Cool right?

If I haven’t convinced you yet, how about the fact that the “Sea Cow” (aka. Dugong), our only herbivorous marine mammal, depends almost entirely on seagrass as its food supply. It grazes on seagrass similar to how the cows graze on grass, except that the dugong removes the whole plant leaving distinct trails along the ocean floor.

Despite not seeing a dugong on the expedition, we did observe these dugong trails and saw more than 40 turtles during the trip.


The team met on 16 August at Tangalooma Launches and ferried over to Moreton Island before settling into the well-maintained Villas at Tangalooma Resort. Lead scientist, Dr James Udy, co-scientist Paul Maxwell and Mark Gibbs, our skipper, greeted us at the Villas. James then provided an insightful briefing of the research priorities and activities.


The first evening we participated in the Dolphin Feeding program managed by Tangalooma Resort. The volunteers had their doubts about the concept, with questions about the legitimacy of feeding wild dolphins. Their concerns were eased when the Resort staff explained the program is a way to educate tourists on the impacts of marine debris and explained the strict guidelines in feeding the dolphins. For example, they are only fed 5% of their daily diet and juvenile dolphins are excluded from this luxury, to ensure they develop their hunting capabilities.

The dolphins come into the beach each night and ‘line up’ into the same rows before being fed and scooting off to hunt – such creatures of habit!


The Research

The real work began on day two. We were split into two teams Pelagio (the research speed boat) and Velella (the catamaran). Paul and I were the Pelagio crew team and James and Mark held the reigns on Velella.

Each day the volunteers were able to swap between the two boats. Partly to mix up the research activities, allow their wetsuits to dry and enjoy the sundowner speciality on Velella – that the research vessel couldn’t offer.

The activities varied however, the overall goal was consistent. We were mapping the seagrass meadows within Moreton Bay. As turbidity increases and light penetration is reduced, the depth at which seagrass can grow declines. By measuring the depth at which seagrasses grows overtime, we can provide scientists a good indicator of water quality.

There has been a significant decline to seagrass meadows throughout the bay, and research shows that if the amount of sediment is not reduced this decline will continue significantly impacting the sea-life that depends on it.

On Velella, volunteers helped lower an underwater camera down to the oceans floor to observe, what species and density of seagrass was prevalent and the sediment type. Recording sediment type was a highlight with people yelling out scientific terminology such as ‘muddy-sand’ or ‘sandy-mud’ or better yet, sand with muddy sand – I could go on, but I’ll spare you.


The species and density guides were a useful tool to determining what species was what. Towards the end of the trip everyone’s ‘seagrass eyes’ were sharpened and the guides were not seen again.

The speedy versatile vessel, Pelagio, would take us into shallower depths to snorkel and take seagrass cores, record observations for mapping and set cameras to observe sealife. Coring consisted of a two-person buddy system, one with a 20cm pipe serrated on one side to cut into the seagrass and the other with a sieve for removing sediment from the sample.

The buddy also served their purpose to keep the buoyant snorkeler down as they attempted to push into the ocean floor to cut their sample. The not-so-graceful duck-diving coring manoeuvre took a certain level of skill, perseverance and teamwork.

The go-pro’s were held down with bricks and recorded bait that was placed a foot in front of it and most evening ‘movie nights’ involved everyone huddled together to see what fish and species had a sneak peek. There was a curious cormorant that came down for a snack – twice!

The days were long and certainly cold, however, I went home with a new understanding and appreciation of the role and beauty of our oceans grasslands.


See more from Channel 7 that came out for a few hours to meet us one-day.

Looking for Lions

By Lloyd Figgins

Lloyd Figgins – Earthwatch’s Global Safety Manager – recently returned from the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, where he joined the Exploring Lions and Their Prey in Kenya expedition to study the complex balance between species in the African savanna.

There are times when I wonder how on earth I managed to get myself into certain situations and this was one of them. We had set off before sunrise in our vehicle, equipped with radio and GPS tracking devices. Our target was a pride of lions, which we knew were in the vicinity. Two of the females had been collared previously, one with a VHF radio transmitter, the other with a GPS unit. In theory it wasn’t going to be a complicated task to locate them. All we needed to do was pick up the signal and then follow the “beeps” until they got stronger and more frequent.

That was the easy bit. Within an hour, we had located the area the pride was in and as we drove through the dense African bush the receivers were going mad. My driver, Phillip, stopped the vehicle, turned to me and simply said, “they are here.” We both looked intently at the bushes surrounding us, yet could only see vegetation. “Are you sure?” I whispered. Phillip just nodded.


We waited for any movement, but there was none. The receiving equipment was showing a 360° signal, indicating that we were in fact surrounded by lions, but I couldn’t see a single one. Then Phillip announced with typical Kenyan calm, “I can see them.” I looked again, but couldn’t see a thing. Phillip pointed to a bush and gave me specific directions on where to look and then I saw a pair of eyes glaring straight at me. It was a large lioness and she was less than 20 feet (6 metres) away from me. How had I not seen her before?

Now that I had my eyes adjusted to what I was looking for, I saw more and more lions. We were quite literally surrounded by them and some were as little as 5 feet (1.5 metres) from our vehicle. Well, at least the direction finding equipment worked.


What was remarkable was how they had remained so still and camouflaged as we crashed through the bush, but the silence now was deafening with the engine off as we stared at one another. It was the cubs who broke the standoff. Their natural curiosity and lack of fear drew them towards these intruders and they left their positions to investigate further under the watchful eye of their mothers. Any movements we made, such as raising a camera, were greeted with a warning growl from the adults. It was a subtle, but effective way of letting us know that we were in their territory and there were rules to us being there.

The cubs for their part grew more confident and started playing right below our position. It was an incredible interaction, but we never lost sight of the fact that we ourselves were being monitored on all sides. In total there were 16 lions in the pride (that we could see) and there was a serious scientific reason for us being there.

The location of the research was deep within the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, which is a 4 to 5 hour drive from Nairobi and the reason I was there was to assess the risks and to pave the way for a new Earthwatch expedition exploring lions and their prey in Kenya. I have travelled to Africa many times over the years and Ol Pejeta remains one of my favourite places on the continent. Far from the crowds of Masai Mara, Samburu and Amboseli, Ol Pejeta is a place not only where genuine conservation work takes place, but where you can also see the big five.


The Earthwatch project is looking at how lions have started to return to the Kenyan savanna after decades of human persecution. But they could become victims of their own success: their return seems linked to declines in rare large herbivores, including many iconic antelope species that tourists in Kenya want to see. So landowners who depend on tourism are considering lethal methods to manage predators once again.

Lions most commonly eat zebras, which have a robust population in the area. And zebras seem to prefer areas where cattle have grazed. By carefully managing the relationships between these species, Earthwatch Scientists led by Dr Jake Goheen and Martin Mulama think it’s possible to influence where the lions seek their meals.


Being part of this work and seeing it in action was a fascinating insight into the complexities of maintaining a balance between the different species within the conservancy. What was clear was the importance of this work being completed. But Jake and his team can’t do it alone, they need help from the people participating on the Earthwatch expeditions to help carry out the research tasks, such as tracking herbivores, camera trapping leopards and hyenas, as well as tracking the lions, which is how I found myself surrounded by this pride.

What is clear is that with the right scientific approach, predators and their prey can co-exist without the need for human intervention to reduce the number of lions.

No one said it would be simple, but then the most worthwhile things in life rarely are.

Once we had collected all the data we needed from the lions, it was time to move on and leave them in peace to enjoy their rest (lions rest for 20 hours a day). We had invaded their territory in the name of science and they had tolerated us, but as I looked at the young cubs, I couldn’t help but wonder what the future has in store for them. What is certain is that the work being done by the Ol Pejeta Conservancy and Earthwatch is improving the understanding of these remarkable animals and how their habitat can be better managed for future generations of both lions and their prey.

The killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe has highlighted the trade in commercial hunting and those who claim it is necessary to conserve the species. However, my experience in Kenya has shown that there’s another way and surely it’s time to focus on methods of non-lethal conservation.

Reposted with permission from

Beyond the Classroom: Finding Inspiration in Nature’s Paradise

By Heather Wilcox

When Heather Wilcox, Earthwatch’s Director of Annual Giving, arrived on the “Climate Change: Sea to Trees at Acadia National Park” expedition to work with high school students from California, she wasn’t sure what to expect. But two weeks in this idyllic park inspired these students to consider careers in science, and reminded Heather of the importance of protecting our natural world.

Only a few minutes after arriving in Maine’s Acadia National Park, I could already understand why it’s one of the top ten most visited national parks in the U.S. Acadia embodies the best of New England: tranquil spruce-fir forests, pink granite cliffs, polished cobble beaches, mountains, lakes, wetlands, and endless views of the richest blue water I’ve ever seen. That I was lucky enough to facilitate an Earthwatch expedition here for a group of teenage volunteers still felt like a dream. But there I was, anxiously awaiting the arrival of eight high school students from Los Angeles who were about to get their first exposure to field science, Earthwatch, Maine, traveling on their own away from home, and perhaps their future career paths.

Maine’s Acadia National Park

Maine’s Acadia National Park

But Acadia is so much more than an idyllic setting for tourists. The park is located along a major migratory corridor between Canada and South America. The abundance of berries and insects makes it a key pit-stop for birds that need to rest and refuel. Or at least it used to be… Changes in climate, happening at different times and in different ways along this route, have shifted the once synchronous arrival of fruit, insects, and birds, so they are now out of rhythm. Earthwatch Scientist Dr. Abe Miller-Rushing is studying what this means for the survival of these species that rely on each other for pollination and sustenance.

My team, however, would be focusing on these same sorts of shifts happening in the intertidal zone. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the world’s large saltwater bodies, threatening the ecosystems and commercial fisheries that once thrived here. Scientists aren’t sure why this is happening (although they speculate that shifts in the Gulf Stream are at play) and there are still far more questions than answers when it comes to which species will be impacted and how.

John Cigliano demonstrates how to safely handle a crab.

John Cigliano demonstrates how to safely handle a crab.

We arrived at the Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park in Winter Harbor, Maine on July 5th, ready to conduct research that will help to answer some of these crucial questions. Each of the students was a Student Science Award recipient for Ignite Los Angeles, a fellowship program funded by the Durfee Foundation through a 25-year partnership with Earthwatch. This program is designed to immerse talented students in high-level science as it’s actually practiced, beyond anything they would have the opportunity to experience in the classroom.

Working under the direction of Earthwatch lead scientist Dr. John Cigliano, the students surveyed 14 research sites along the Schoodic Peninsula coast, carefully documenting the species of seaweeds, snails, barnacles and other marine creatures found there. The students also built and installed devices to measure wave energy, record hourly temperature data, and capture barnacle and mussel larvae as they settle out of the water column and attach to the rocks below. This data will paint a picture of the movement of intertidal species over time as they respond – or don’t respond – to warming temperatures, increasing acidification, and rising sea level.

Students record species found within a quadrat.

Students record species found within a quadrat.

Experts predict that within the next 100 years, there will be a massive increase in the amount of hydrogen in the water, which simultaneously decreases the amount of calcium carbonate (a substance that lobsters, clams, mussels, corals, and other marine species draw from the water to build protective shells or perform chemical or biological processes). As these species decline, all of the species that depend on them for food (including us humans) will also be affected. Other research suggests that fish and species without shells are being affected too, with lab results ranging from abnormal growth and development, to delayed reaction time and altered behavior.

It’s grim stuff, for sure, but there is still so much that we can do. This expedition alone is raising awareness about these issues, and will serve as a model for future studies.

It provides hope that ocean acidification and climate change will soon garner the attention that they need. And the fact that generous donors like the Durfee Foundation are committed to exposing youth to the sciences ensures that we are adding more bright minds to the fight.

I realized just how imperative these programs are during a conversation I had with the students about what they were being taught about climate change and the environment. Their unanimous response was a disheartening “nothing.” As a long-time Earthwatch employee, I am proud to say that our hands-on expeditions address gaps like these and truly do have a positive and lasting impact on those who participate.

Reviewing data from periwinkle snail behavioral experiments.

Reviewing data from periwinkle snail behavioral experiments.

When asked about her experience in Acadia, Iris, 16, said “Earthwatch lets us explore science in the field instead of in the classroom. It has had a great impact on us because we were able to see the effects of ocean acidification in our environment. Now that I see how close you can be to nature and how you can affect the world, it really inspires me for college. I definitely want to go to college for biology.”

Her teammate, Alina, 17, shared similar sentiments. “The only real exposure I’ve had to science was in school, in a classroom…I’ve learned that a career in environmental science or conservation would be a really viable career option for me, and Earthwatch really opened my eyes to that.”

As for me, I’ve returned home with a reinvigorated appreciation for the immense beauty of our natural world, and an elevated drive to do even more to protect it for future generations.

I’ve lived in New England my whole life and often took for granted the vast expanses of forest, the breathtaking rocky coasts, the peaceful serenity of being surrounded by wilderness, blinking fireflies on a hot summer evening, or the joy of gazing at the Milky Way splashed across an unpolluted night sky. Seeing these things again for the first time through the eyes of the students reminded me of just how magical our planet is, but also the seriousness of our personal responsibilities to take action to protect it as best we can, whenever we can.

Earthwatch’s Heather Wilcox holds up a new friend in Acadia National Park.

Earthwatch’s Heather Wilcox holds up a new friend in Acadia National Park.

Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities, Healthy Lives

By Alix Morris

City trees offer a variety of benefits, including reducing air pollution and improving our health, studies say. For the last few years, Earthwatch citizen scientists have collected data to estimate the health and benefits of urban forests in Boston and Los Angeles. In this Q&A with two Earthwatch researchers, find out about the value of urban forests, and the importance of citizen science support.

“Urban forests” – the collection of trees planted between and among city structures, decorating concrete sidewalks and backyard spaces, and scattered throughout city parks – offer more than a respite from city life. They improve air quality, mitigate the effects of climate change, produce oxygen, and offer valuable aesthetic appeal.

And, as it turns out, urban forests are good for our health


Recently, a team of researchers studied more than 500,000 trees in Toronto to measure the effects of urban forests on the health of tens of thousands of Toronto residents. The study found that people who live in neighborhoods with more trees report significantly fewer health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, and have a higher perceived health. The research adds to a growing body of data indicating that urban forests are good for our psychological health and our physical health, in addition to their positive environmental impact.


Earthwatch has long recognized the incredible importance of urban forests in resilient cities and currently offers one-day expeditions in Boston and Los Angeles for volunteers interested in helping researchers to identify and measure trees. Urban trees face a number of threats, including lack of access to water, pollution, diseases, shading by buildings, and removal by city officials. By studying these threats and measuring the growth and abundance of trees, Earthwatch researchers and volunteers can provide local tree managers with the tools they need to maintain healthy urban forests.

An Earthwatch volunteer measures the circumference of a tree in Boston to assess its health.

An Earthwatch volunteer measures the circumference of a tree in Boston to assess its health.

I had a chance to speak to two Earthwatch researchers – Dr. Darrel Jenerette of the University of California, Riverside and Dr. Vanessa Boukili of Earthwatch – about the importance of understanding our urban forests, and the value of citizen scientists. Here’s what they had to say:

What is the message you’d like to share with people who want to get involved with this research?

Darrel: I think it’s important to know that more than half of the human population lives in cities today, and that’s going to increase to the point where we’re expecting another two billion urban residents by the year 2030. Cities are places where we need to understand the resilience challenges to make them healthier and more habitable. We need to make our cities more resilient to future climate change.

It’s also about education. It’s really fun doing science, and I want to share that with others. I just had a middle school teacher contact me who had participated in our research and had gotten his class to participate. He was writing a blog about the research and was using it as a vehicle for science education. That was a huge success and there are many examples like this.

How has citizen science supported the urban forest project?

Vanessa: Almost all of the tree measurements in our study have been conducted by citizen scientists. From 2012-2014, citizen scientist volunteers measured over 6,000 trees. Our citizen scientist brigade allows us to collect enough data to answer larger questions than we would be able to answer without them.

“Our research would not be possible without citizen scientists.” — Vanessa Boukili

Darrel: Citizen scientists allow us to collect a magnitude of samples that would be impossible for us otherwise, which is really exciting. They also help us to close the loop between connecting research results to society. We train our citizen scientists to be trainers – to go out and tell people what’s going on.

What are the challenges to your research – where do you need support from volunteers?

Vanessa: Our study is longitudinal, where we are looking at the same set of trees over time. The measurements we take in the field are relatively straightforward to make; we verify tree species identity, measure tree size (diameter), and assess the condition of the tree.

One of the primary challenges we face is collecting data from large numbers of trees. Because there are a lot of different factors that influence tree survival and growth, we need data from many thousands of trees to figure out which factors are most important. The more data we have, the better we will be able to address our research questions. The support from volunteers allows us to gather a lot of data in a relatively short period of time.

Growing greens and going green in Mexico’s wetlands

By Carly Toyzan, EY Earthwatch Ambassador

In May, Carly Toyzan, an EY Earthwatch Ambassador, traveled to Xochimilco, Mexico, to support local farmers with their businesses while monitoring water quality and promoting sustainable agriculture.

Not even 20 miles south of Mexico City, Xochimilco is a vast wetlands system that’s home to more than 140 species of migratory birds as well as native species, such as the axolotl — a salamander so historically revered that it is the hero of local legends. I traveled to the axolotl’s turf as part of the EY Earthwatch Ambassadors program. While conservation efforts are critical here because of the increasing threats to animals, plants and the overall ecosystem, my team’s time in Xochimilco centered primarily on its people.

During the expedition, we navigated Xochimilco’s maze of canals and lakes with farmers who grow crops on small plots called chinampas. The Aztecs started farming in the chinampas more than 500 years ago, but recently, many farmers have traded the traditional methods for agrochemicals, greenhouses, and greater profits. The resulting pollution paired with that of urbanization has negative effects on water quality, which is where Earthwatch researchers come in.

Scientists working with Restauración Ecológica y Desarrollo, A.C. (REDES), a local nonprofit, have been monitoring water quality and teaching farmers about the importance of sustainable agriculture.

Some farmers are already on board, but to convince others, they need ways to improve business practices. And that’s where EY comes in.

Farmers use Xochimilco’s canals to travel and transport produce, but they’re also home to a variety of plants and animals.

Farmers use Xochimilco’s canals to travel and transport produce, but they’re also home to a variety of plants and animals.

Business can sow seeds of change

At EY, we have a long history of supporting entrepreneurs because we recognize the positive effects they have in our communities, and that is true about the farmers, whose support of Earthwatch and REDES’ work is crucial to positive change. For our skills-based project, a unique aspect of the EY Earthwatch program, we got to know 12 farmers who are the leaders among hundreds in a part-urban, part-rural cluster of chinampas called San Gregorio.

REDES employee Citlalli Gonzalez Hernandez explains how pollution problems are compounded where chinampas sit next to urban areas.

REDES employee Citlalli Gonzalez Hernandez explains how pollution problems are compounded where chinampas sit next to urban areas.

During our first two days, we interviewed the farmers about their challenges and toured some of their chinampas to see firsthand how they’re growing greens and other products despite complex problems stemming from the troubled water supply. The following days, we spent our afternoons and evenings developing recommendations for growing their business and committing to sustainability.

After hearing their stories, enjoying their fresh products for lunch, and seeing their passion for preserving the area and tradition, we wanted to help address all their concerns. But with only a few days, we focused on simple tips for strengthening their organization, developing a brand, and reaching new markets.

The EY team holds small group interviews with local farmers to learn about their business challenges and vision for the future.

The EY team holds small group interviews with local farmers to learn about their business challenges and vision for the future.

Research provides the foundation

When we weren’t working on our skills-based project, we were diving into the water-quality research with Earthwatch and REDES. Most days we traveled by boat to our sample sites, but we also hiked through a few of the more urban chinampas to reach a total of 8 collection points. As part of their multiyear study, REDES returns to these points and 14 others each dry and wet season.

I was amazed by the variety and amount of data we could gather: dissolved oxygen, temperature, pH, conductivity, turbidity, nitrates, phosphates, bacteria, heavy metals, and biological indicators. I can’t offer scientific conclusions, but I can say definitively that spending the morning in a floating science lab was an exciting change of pace from my corporate office environment.

EY and REDES team members test water samples for copper, lead, cadmium and chromium in a floating science lab.

EY and REDES team members test water samples for copper, lead, cadmium and chromium in a floating science lab.

During our last day in Xochimilco, we provided tips and strategies from the skills-based project, and REDES presented results from our field research. The farmers listened intently, took notes and asked questions. They were curious how the results can be used to approach government officials, Xochimilco citizens and other chinamperos and to make the case for sustainable methods.

Interacting with people in the community who are affecting and affected by the research was a special part of our EY Earthwatch experience in Mexico. We saw where environmental researchers, business-minded farmers, government and the community are intersecting and why there is a dire need to get them flowing in the same direction — toward conserving this ecosystem.

The EY team, Earthwatch, REDES employees and farmers gathered for the final time at the REDES experimental chinampa in Xochimilco.

The EY team, Earthwatch, REDES employees and farmers gathered for the final time at the REDES experimental chinampa in Xochimilco.

Water isn’t sexy, but it is essential

As I share my experience with family, friends and colleagues, I keep wondering how to get people interested in this project in a way that will intrigue and inspire them.

Where I’m from, water isn’t sexy. It doesn’t draw a wide-eyed reaction like, say, penguins in Patagonia or lion prides in Kenya. Water is familiar – we drink it; we play in it; we use it for cooking, cleaning and transportation. But the fact that it’s so essential to our everyday lives is exactly why I came to feel passionate about this project and why I hope others will want to learn more.

For some of us, conserving water may not seem as important as it is for those I met in Mexico — but, in a way, it is. If you’re not saving the native axolotl in Xochimilco, then you’re supporting the survival of a species closer to your home. You probably don’t have chinampas in your backyard, but agrochemicals may still be working their way into your water.

The research from Xochimilco is also part of a global Earthwatch project called FreshWater Watch. The program trains citizen scientists, like us, to collect data at more than 3,000 locations. It’s one way you can contribute to the health of our world’s fresh water and make a difference where you live.

Three Scientists, a Surprise Discovery, and a Mission to Save Sharks

By Alix Morris

This week, Alix traveled to Hermanus, South Africa to meet with the Earthwatch research team leading the Discovering Sharks in South Africa expedition. These scientists are helping to conserve diverse species of sharks in Walker Bay, some of which are only found in South African waters.

Before concluding my time in South Africa, I snuck in a brief trip to Hermanus, a town that sits on the edge of Walker Bay, to meet with some stellar shark scientists. Walker Bay is on the migratory route of southern right whales and just around the corner from one of the largest groupings of white sharks in the world. In other words, it’s a wildlife tourist’s dream. But what many people don’t realize is that beneath the surface of these waters lives a diverse array of other, fascinating marine species, including dozens of unique sharks. These animals go largely unnoticed by tourists and even, in some cases, by other shark researchers. But with a quarter of the world’s shark and ray populations at risk of extinction, it’s possible these lesser-known species face similar threats and yet lack the necessary protections.

SASC volunteers feed a shyshark in one of the holding tanks to record its consumption levels before it’s released.

Many of these sharks are “data deficient,” meaning that scientists are unaware of their conservation status. Without data, it’s impossible to develop protective policies – and researchers at the South African Shark Conservancy (SASC) are working to change that.

A (Massive) Discovery

In 2009, a group of shark researchers and fishermen led by SASC’s Founder and Director Meaghen McCord were drifting along the Breede River – an estuary in the Western Cape Province of South Africa – aboard their research vessel. Acting on a hunch, the team was on a mission to confirm the presence of bull sharks in the river. They knew the journey might be a wasted effort – bull sharks had never been recorded in the river, which was located well south of their documented range. But locals had told them that this species, which has a unique ability to live in both oceans and freshwater estuaries and lakes, were there.

After three days, there was a strong tug on the line. Sure enough, there it was – the first bull shark to be documented in these temperate waters. One of the team members – a skilled recreational shark fisherman – acted quickly, maneuvering the rod and reel as the massive animal dragged their boat six kilometers upriver. After three hours, the shark grew tired and he was able to bring it close enough to the research boat for the scientists to study it. But as they recorded the animal’s measurements, they realized there was something unique about this shark, which was 4 meters long with an estimated weight of 550 kg.

They had unknowingly caught the largest bull shark known to science.

Led by SASC’s Meaghen McCord, scientists catch and measure the largest bull shark ever recorded before releasing it back into the river. Photo credit: Alison Towner

Led by SASC’s Meaghen McCord, scientists catch and measure the largest bull shark ever recorded before releasing it back into the river. Photo credit: Alison Towner

Three Women Team Up for Shark Conservation

One year after the discovery of the bull shark in these waters, two researchers – Tamzyn Zweig and Katie Gledhill – independently tracked Meaghen down and convinced her to take them on at SASC. The organization transitioned from a one-woman, barebones operation to a trio-led powerhouse.

“We absolutely fell in love with each other’s personalities. We’re so lucky to have found each other,” Meag said to me as we sat overlooking the Bay.

(Left to Right) Tamzyn Zweig, Meaghen McCord, and Katie Gledhill taking measurements and recording data in Shark Lab.

(Left to Right) Tamzyn Zweig, Meaghen McCord, and Katie Gledhill taking measurements and recording data in Shark Lab.

Together, these scientists (and their growing team) have pushed forward the field of shark research in the region, tagging more than 1,000 elasmobranchs (sharks, skates, and rays) that represent 25 unique species, and raising awareness of the vast number of shark species in Walker Bay. One of their most important focus areas is engaging with the local community, including schools, other non-profits, the local government, and, importantly, fishermen, who are well positioned to support shark conservation efforts. During the short time I met with the team in the research lab, at least five groups arrived for a meet and greet to visit the researchers as well as the sharks in the holding tanks (a few smaller sharks are kept in tanks so the team can study their behavior before releasing them back into the wild).

From a baby pyjama shark that can fit in the palm of your hand, to a shyshark that curls its tail to cover its eyes when it’s frightened, to the massive bull sharks with their unique adaptations to salt and freshwater ecosystems, there is seemingly no end to the uniqueness and diversity of the shark species that exist in the western Cape region of South Africa.


A four-month-old pyjama shark, named for its unique stripes that resemble pajamas.

Changing Perceptions

Katie said that her happiest moments as a scientist come when she sees someone’s first interaction with sharks – and how quickly it can change their perceptions of these predators. Sure enough, when she put a leopard catshark in my hands, I immediately felt the strength and power of the small animal – it was overwhelming. I couldn’t help but give her and Tamzyn an embarrassingly enormous smile (since they loved the photo, I’ll begrudgingly share it here).

Even as a writer, I find myself struggling to put that experience into words. Best to experience it and discover these fascinating animals for yourself!

Alix holds a leopard catshark while Katie laughs at her excitement.

Alix holds a leopard catshark while Katie laughs at her excitement.

If there’s a story about following your passion to make a difference in the world, it’s the story of these three scientists. Katie told me that she had initially been discouraged from pursuing a career in shark research, but ignored the advice. As she spoke to me about her path over the years, tears came to her eyes. “I’m so glad that I didn’t listen. I’m so glad. Sometimes I just look back and realize that life is beyond what I ever could have imagined.” The sharks in Walker Bay are lucky to have such strong and determined advocates. Their work has helped to raise awareness about the diversity and importance of sharks in the region, and the world. And with the help of citizen scientists, they’ll have the power to extend their efforts even further.

(Left to right) Tamzyn Zweig, Alix Morris, Sheraine Van Wyk (research partner and Manager of Eco-Learning and Greenhouse Environmental Centre at Whale Coast Conservation), Katie Gledhill, and Meaghen McCord outside of the South African Shark Conservancy office in Hermanus.

(Left to right) Tamzyn Zweig, Alix Morris, Sheraine Van Wyk (research partner and Manager of Eco-Learning and Greenhouse Environmental Centre at Whale Coast Conservation), Katie Gledhill, and Meaghen McCord outside of the South African Shark Conservancy office in Hermanus.

Farewell (for now!) South Africa

And so concludes my journey, visiting two glorious Earthwatch expeditions. The time passed much too quickly, but I was so lucky to have been able to meet the researchers and our partners and to share my experiences with all of you. Thanks for reading!

Celebrating 25 years of students doing science in the summer

By Kristen Kusek

In the Earthwatch office here in Boston, staff are abuzz prepping volunteers for the busiest field season of the year and making sure our science teams have what they need.

Ignite student expedition

This year marks our 25th anniversary in partnership with the Durfee Foundation, which has empowered 1,200 students (and teachers, too) like Moria featured here to experience once-in-a-lifetime Earthwatch expeditions. Thank you, Durfee!

Among those packing their bags to embark on expeditions are 50 high school students from Los Angeles. Thanks to a unique fellowship program called IGNITE, these students will help Earthwatch scientists study intertidal communities in Maine, climate change and caterpillars in Nevada and Florida, sea level rise in South Carolina and Rhode Island, and waterbirds on the Gulf Coast of Texas – opportunities to see environmental change first-hand, outside of the classroom, and to do something about it.

They are the latest crop of more than 1,200 students (and teachers, too) whose expeditions were made possible by the family-run Durfee Foundation over the last 25 years – and we had to take a moment before the fielding frenzy to send a heartfelt “thank you” to Durfee. This year marks our 25th anniversary so there’s no better time to celebrate such a powerful partnership.


Recently, I had a chance to interview Michael Newkirk, Vice President of Durfee’s Board of Trustees. He started the program in 1990 with Durfee’s first executive director, Robbie MacFarlane. Here are a few highlights from our chat:

Q: What excites you the most about this program?

A: I experienced a key moment in 1976 when I was in high school that reflects the experience I believe we are offering high school students today. I got to visit the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena and was in the control room when the first spacecraft landed on Mars. There we were at 3 a.m., anxiously looking at the monitors to see if the lander survived as the first pictures started to come into focus very slowly. That was way beyond what I ever got to see in high school – and the IGNITE program is way beyond what most students experience, too.

Q: What is the primary goal of the IGNITE program?

A: The main impetus is to give creative-minded 10th and 11th graders the opportunity to work with research scientists – immersing them in high-level science as it is actually practiced. Our goal is not to crank out scientists, though that does happen, too, and that’s great. What we’ve seen over the years is how the program has the ability to change the life trajectory of these students – over just a couple of weeks – and it really plants the seeds of a more interesting life.


Q: You have described this program as “slightly unconventional.” What makes it unique?

A: We look for creative-minded students, not really your science-y types per se – and we want to know who they are, not what kind of grades they get. In fact we don’t ask for academic transcripts at all. In addition to a teacher recommendation, our application involves things like asking the student to make a drawing or illustration. Earthwatch whittles the applications down to 150, and to this day I still enjoy going through every one of them and trying to get them down to 50. Reading the applications still gives me hope for the future because these kids are amazing. I just can’t believe they are only in high school!

Q: What’s been your favorite moment in the last 25 years?

A: 1990 was the first year we sent out students –and at that time the students came from all over the US. We sent them to an observatory in Arizona, and I visited at the end of the two weeks to see how it was going. I was so impressed with how enthusiastic they were! These students went from total strangers to a totally cohesive group with tremendous camaraderie – and they kept “astronomer’s hours,” staying awake all night to observe the stars from the top of this mountain. They were so clever and witty and asked the best questions – and, there were no issues you might expect when sending teens out to the top of a mountain.


I learned then that we hit on something powerful: It’s important to get the students to a radically different environment from their home and their schools – just like this year, we have students from L.A. spending two weeks on the seashore in Maine. I’m very proud that our unconventional approach seems to just work.

Q: What do the next 25 years hold?

A: I would love to be able to send out more students every year and keep it propagating. We have the model, and we know it works, and I hope other groups come to the table to help replicate it.

Thank you, Durfee. Let’s keep igniting the flames of passion for science, personal growth and change!

Turning the Tide for Penguins in Peril

By Alix Morris

As Alix and the team wrap up field work this week for the South African Penguins expedition, she reflects on the ongoing challenges facing these birds, and the invaluable research contributions that help to protect them.


Penguins gather along a rocky beach on Robben Island overlooking Cape Town and Table Mountain.

In just two weeks living and working on this beautiful island, we’ve managed to collect a considerable amount of data to add to nearly 15 years of continuous Earthwatch research. But as we wrap up fieldwork, I’m overwhelmed by the thought of how much more there is to do to protect the population of African penguins. This species has experienced significant challenges over the years, largely as a result of human influence. Here are just a few stories that highlight the plight of the penguins.

A Sunken Treasure

On June 23, 2000, a ship transporting iron ore from China to Brazil developed a hole in its hull just off the coast of South Africa. The alarm sounded – MV Treasure was going down. South African authorities knew they had limited time and so quickly ordered the Treasure, which was carrying 1,300 tons of fuel oil, to be moved further offshore to reduce the risk of environmental damage. But after two hours in rough seas, the tow rope broke loose and the ship drifted towards the east – just six miles offshore of Cape Town – and sank, releasing thousands of gallons of oil into the sea. The 29 crew members aboard the ship were airlifted to safety.

The oil slick extended from Robben to Dassen Islands – off the southwest coast of Cape Town – threatening 40 percent of the world’s African penguin populations.


The Treasure spilled more than a thousand tons of oil into critical foraging grounds for penguins and other seabirds.

Oil breaks through penguins’ waterproof feathers, which protect them from frigid sea temperatures. When this happens, the birds are forced out of the water and unable to feed themselves or their chicks. The devastating result: starvation. Environmentalists from around the world supported South African efforts to de-oil more than 20,000 birds. A remarkable 90 percent of the birds were released back into the wild after being treated. Some of these birds, however, were unable to breed due to the effects of the oil.

In 2001, a year after the oil spill, Earthwatch began the South African Penguins expedition to monitor the health and population of African penguins on Robben Island. For nearly 15 years, researchers and volunteers have collected data on the breeding success rates of the penguins, the growth rate and overall conditions of penguin chicks, survival rates of the birds, and other key data that help to determine the best ways to protect the population.


Community fellow Laurie Johnson, Alix, and Earthwatch researcher Jenny Grigg prepare to weigh a penguin chick during condition assessments.

Fish on the Move

In 2007, Robben Island was home to the second largest colony of African penguins in the world, with more than 6,000 breeding pairs. The population seemed to be improving. But the tides were quite literally turning. Changes in ocean currents, which some biologists attribute to the effects of climate change, have shifted fish populations (sardines and anchovies) to the southeast of the nesting colonies. No one fully understands why the fish have moved, but the population of penguins has plummeted to below 2,000 breeding pairs on the island. The birds must now compete with local fishermen over a rapidly diminishing food supply. And because of their attachment to their nesting colonies – relocating the penguins to be closer to the fish would require a massive effort, which may or may not actually work.

In November 2013, the African penguin was added to the list of endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

In November 2013, the African penguin was added to the list of endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The data collected by Earthwatch teams can feel small in the face of the massive challenges this species faces. But it has been important for us to remember how critical these datasets are. If we want to save these birds, if we want to bring them back from the edge of extinction, we need data to do it. We need to understand how they’re breeding, where they’re hunting for food, whether chicks are surviving, and if methods to help protect these birds – from setting up nest boxes to hand rearing malnourished chicks to potentially relocating entire breeding colonies – were, are, or will be, effective. The research is critical – it’s the only thing that can help to prevent the further decline of this species – and it takes time.

(Left to right) Community fellow Megan Lategan and Jenny attach a tracking device to a penguin to record its foraging behavior.

(Left to right) Community fellow Megan Lategan and Jenny attach a tracking device to a penguin to record its foraging behavior.

The Power of the Earthwatch Experience

This was my first Earthwatch expedition and I have a small confession. Over the past nine months or so, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing many people who have considered their Earthwatch experiences to be life altering – to have fundamentally changed them in some way. These stories are part of what inspired me to work for the organization. But I admit I’ve always been surprised that a one-to-two-week experience can have such a dramatic effect on a person. I’m not sure I fully understood it until I experienced it for myself. The people I’ve met on this trip – Jenny, Amour, Megan, and Laurie – are some of the most interesting and inspiring people I’ve worked with. Their support, combined with a collective understanding of the importance of our contributions, showed me what it truly means to be an Earthwatch volunteer.

The Field Team (Left to right): Laurie Johnson, Jenny Grigg, Amour McCarthy, Megan Lategan, Alix Morris

The Field Team (Left to right): Laurie Johnson, Jenny Grigg, Amour McCarthy, Megan Lategan, Alix Morris

Stay tuned next week to read about Alix’s visit to South Africa’s Walker Bay to meet with Katie Gledhill and her team on the Discovering Sharks in South Africa expedition.

Greetings from (Rainy) Robben Island!

By Alix Morris

The population of African penguins on Robben Island, South Africa has declined by more than 90 percent in the last 100 years. This week, Alix Morris, Earthwatch’s Senior Science Writer, is working with researchers and volunteers on the island to study these endangered birds on the South African Penguins expedition.

After more than 20 hours in the air and a slight delay in Cape Town due to high winds and rain, I have arrived at Robben Island at last! It is a small team per usual on this project. In this case we have: two community fellows (local professionals who receive grant funding to participate on the expedition), two research staff, and me.

Because of the inclement weather, tour boats have not been running for the past few days. So our team arrived on the island aboard a boat used to transport staff and residents – the very same boat that once delivered political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, during apartheid. In fact, some of the former prisoners now live on the island – a mere stone’s throw from the building where they were once confined – and offer tours to visitors from around the world.

Alix enjoying the rain on Robben Island with an extremely fashionable rain hat.

Alix enjoying the rain on Robben Island with an extremely fashionable rain hat.

Upon arrival on the island, we zipped past the tourist area, hopped aboard the research truck, and made our way to the house. Within minutes, we encountered our first African penguins! Four well-clad birds scuttled across the road in front of the truck, flippers straight out at their sides as if they were preparing for takeoff. In their rush, one fell flat on its belly and another tripped over a tree branch. A perfect welcome from our graceful island hosts.

A group of African penguins on a windy beach on Robben Island.

A group of African penguins on a windy beach on Robben Island.

We’re now just a few days into the expedition and the experience for all of us has been, in a word, surreal. Megan, one of the Community Fellows, said to me last night, “The coolest thing for me is that no one else gets to come here and yet we just wander around like it’s nothing. Not only that, we have this insanely close access to the penguins that people can’t otherwise experience.”

Today we completed a round of nest checks to count the numbers of adults and chicks in each of the nests that are being monitored. This involves a bit of shimmying around rocks and crawling under branches to peer into the small caves the penguins have built for themselves and their chicks. Nearly every nest we visited had at least a chick or two at various stages of development – some had just hatched, others were slightly larger and covered with soft, downy feathers, and several were nearly the size of adults, about ready to fledge (when a penguin takes its first swim).

An African penguin chick in a nest after shedding most of its down feathers.

An African penguin chick in a nest after shedding most of its down feathers.

In the afternoon, I tagged along with Jenny, our lead researcher, to unhook logger tags from penguins as part of her graduate research. These tags are attached to penguins’ backs and used to record GPS measurements that map a penguin’s journey to find fish. Jenny collects the data to see where the penguins went during a single foraging trip. She also records beak measurements and weighs the penguins to help determine the sex of the bird.

Earthwatch researcher Jenny Grigg measures the beak length of an African penguin after removing a logger tag.

Earthwatch researcher Jenny Grigg measures the beak length of an African penguin after removing a logger tag.

We were soaked when we got back to the house, but a cup of tea, a biscuit, and a warm shower did the trick. OK, there were perhaps many biscuits.

Tomorrow, if the rain holds off, we’ll be heading back out to the field to measure penguin chicks. It’s a tough life here on Robben Island, but so far we’re managing quite well. Stay tuned for more about this research next week!

Bees and Butterflies in a Biodiversity Hotspot

By Christina Selby

Through Earthwatch, I was able to make a small but meaningful contribution and experience a slice of one of the world’s most ecologically important places.

The greater Himalaya region is home to the charismatic but endangered snow leopards, red pandas, blue sheep, more than 1,500 species of plants, and the native honeybees that pollinate them. This diversity of life, combined with the fact that only 30% of the native habitat remains, makes the Western Himalayas one of the world’s Biodiversity Hotspots.

A view of the Himalayas through an apple orchard.

A view of the Himalayas through an apple orchard.

Pollination is a key driver in the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem health. While flies, butterflies, bats, moths, beetles and other bugs pollinate, bees are the key players, especially in agricultural ecosystems. They pollinate over 400 different types of crops, nearly one-third of the food we eat. Yet, their populations are declining across the globe due to habitat loss, climate change, disease, and pesticide use.

So this spring, when I came upon Earthwatch’s Bees and Butterflies in the Indian Himalayas expedition, I jumped at the chance to see the Himalayan Hotspot and learn more about the plight of bees.

It is early April and six other Earthwatch volunteers and I are awaiting instructions in an apple orchard in the Kullu Valley, known as the fruit basket of India. Dr. Kumar and Dr. Aman, the lead scientists on this research project, hand out survey sheets. They show us how to record observations of seven types of pollinators to assess their diversity and density. Over time the data will be compiled to document changes in pollinator populations as the climate warms.

I find an apple tree with open blossoms and quietly wait. The snow-crested Himalaya Mountains tower over the Beas River Valley. A bee with four black stripes across its ivory abdomen flies in. It’s an Apis cerana, or wild Indian honeybee. Later when the day warms, bees with bright orange abdomens and three black stripes, the European Honeybees or Apis mellifera, join in.

Christina Selby surveys pollinators in an orchard.

Christina Selby surveys pollinators in an orchard.

I mark tallies on my sheet each time a pollinator visits a blossom, gathering data on their activities and numbers. Native bees do the lion’s share of pollinating in both the orchards and the native forests. They are adapted to the local climate and don’t mind the overcast mornings or cool breezes that keep European Honeybees in their hives for shelter.

Late in the morning, I hand my data sheet into Dr. Aman. “These are similar to the results we’ve been getting,” he says.

I’m relieved that my citizen science skills are up to the task.

The afternoon of our third field day, we gather for lunch. About 20 men and women from the village greet us with gifts of flowers, garlands, and smudge a tilak on our foreheads. We sit in a circle and the Earthwatch staff translates as we pepper each other with questions in an interactive exchange to gather information on the “ecosystem services” that support farming.

Earthwatch volunteers speak with villagers about how the decline in pollinators has affected local farming.

Earthwatch volunteers speak with villagers about how the decline in pollinators has affected local farming.

According to the local farmers, about five years ago, their apple trees started producing fewer apples. Farmers down the valley had cut down their orchards, disappointed by very low yields. They attributed it to climate warming at lower elevations. Concerned for their livelihoods, these farmers enlisted the help of the scientists at GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development. With the scientists’ help, they learned that the main cause in the upper valley was a pollination deficit.

The bee populations declined in numbers due to loss of habitat, food sources, and pesticide use, so there weren’t enough bees to pollinate all the apple trees.

Farmers started paying beekeepers to bring managed hives of European Honeybees to their orchards for the 20 or so days that the trees blossom to fill the gap. But it is a temporary fix in the orchards. Apis mellifera is a non-native species and thought to be a threat to local biodiversity.

The scientists recognized that a healthy ecosystem should be able to support a robust native bee population to provide the “ecosystem service” of pollination for free. Their work became figuring out what agricultural and forest management practices would restore native pollinators and in turn the livelihoods of the local famers.

Working in six different orchards and two natural forests throughout the week, we helped to collect data on the peak bloom period times for the region to tell the shift in phenology due to climate change, assess pollinator populations and diversity as well as record the preferred bee forage, and assess plant diversity to determine the health of nearby forests that provide habitat for native bees.

Earthwatch volunteers in Nashala Village with Dr. Samat, Director of GB Pant Institute, counting traditional bee hives.

Earthwatch volunteers in Nashala Village with Dr. Samat, Director of GB Pant Institute, counting traditional bee hives.

On our last day in the field, we work in an orchard at lower elevation in the valley. Here agricultural practices informed by the study are already being implemented. A variety of crops including garlic, onions, and cauliflower, dot the orchard to provide food and shelter for a number of natural pollinators and diversify the income stream of the farmer. Native wildflowers are planted under the trees adding forage for bees. Pesticide use is limited and not applied when the apples are in bloom. With the financial support of a previous Earthwatch group, the farmer constructed special bee hives to raise Indian honeybees helping to revive this traditional practice.

I finish my last pollinator count and hand in my clipboard to Dr. Aman. He thanks our group for our hard work over the week.

The data we gathered, he says, would have taken him over a month to collect. The bloom season would have been over well before he’d been able to collect the data himself.

Sitting down in the tall grass, I reflect on the busy and satisfying week. While the challenge of saving biodiversity on the planet is great, caring people all over the world are working on the solutions.

Changing Lives, Protecting the Planet

By Andrew Greenspan, Earthwatch Corporate Fellow

When I was a little boy, my mother would take me on regular trips to see the life-like dioramas of the African Hall of Mammals at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. I would compare these animal scenes to the real-life versions I saw during trips to the Bronx Zoo. But I always dreamed of one day seeing lions and leopards in their natural habitat, and so I took myself on two adventures to Africa, to see the natural wonder of the Serengeti and Okavango Delta with my own eyes.

“But it was through my experience with Earthwatch that I gained exposure to an entirely different side of my interest in the natural environment that I had not previously explored: how to protect these iconic animals and their habitats through citizen science.”

Volunteers test carbon content at freshwater ponds in the Mai Po Nature Reserve.

Volunteers test carbon content at freshwater ponds in the Mai Po Nature Reserve.

I am an Earthwatch fellow in two capacities. I first attended a one-day course on global water quality and scarcity issues impacting the planet, brought hyper local with training in data gathering for testing of the water quality right here in the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan. More recently, I was in Hong Kong for a week-long program designed to train leaders in sustainability knowledge and practice, with the objective of returning to my day job with a pledge to positively impact the sustainability of my company with a project of my own.

Connecting citizens with scientists is a fantastic premise that Earthwatch manages to make incredibly effective in practice. You can see first-hand, with minimal time commitment, the direct connection between the field work you perform and how it informs the science and furthers the dialogue about the challenges the planet is facing.

The team walks along a wooden footbridge through the mangrove forest to the mudflats at Mai Po Nature Reserve.

The team walks along a wooden footbridge through the mangrove forest to the mudflats at Mai Po Nature Reserve.

The lectures on climate change that I received from the scientists and on advances in corporate sustainability initiatives from the guest lecturers were both eye-opening for me. On the science side, I enjoyed learning about the impacts to the migrations and other stresses of my beloved animals, and the idea that “spring events” are happening earlier and earlier every year.

“On the sustainability side, I had no idea there were such advances underway, with everything from energy neutral data centers, to green accounting, to companies that take the worst kinds of waste and turn it to energy.”

Andrew (second from right) and his team test carbon content in the soil at the mudflats of Shenzhen Bay.

Andrew (second from right) and his team test carbon content in the soil at the mudflats of Shenzhen Bay.

The cumulative effect of my Earthwatch experiences has convinced a Senior Vice President at a bank that he should take his career in a different direction. I am in the process of applying to sustainability-related Master’s degree programs for fall admission.

“I want to have a positive impact on the planet in the way that Earthwatch has had a positive impact on me.”

From Trees to Coquis, an Earthwatch Scientist Explores Puerto Rico’s Rainforest

By Stan Rullman

As a terrestrial ecologist, entering a new ecosystem to me is like a child entering a new candy store. All my senses tingle with the novelty, every corner reveals some new treasure that I try to fit in to that which I am familiar and understand as a scientist. Such was the case this past December, when I had a chance to participate in our Puerto Rico’s Rainforest project. As Earthwatch’s Research Director, I was particularly excited about this journey, as it would be my first official Earthwatch expedition.


Puerto Rico’s rainforest

During my life, I’ve explored and conducted research in various tropical forests around the globe, from Borneo and Sumatra to the Congo Basin to Central America’s ‘paseo pantera’ to the heart of Amazonia- always looking for those common threads of form and function, of predator and prey, and always listening for that unique collective song of each forest system.

In Puerto Rico, the lead singer of that forest song is the common coqui, a frog that has leaped into a formal mascot role for the island nation.

Listen to the coqui call as a researcher records observations in the field.

I’ll come back to frogs in a bit. As much as these landscapes are influenced by what is there, they are also defined, in many ways, by what is not. And what was conspicuously absent in the secondary growth rain forest of the Patillas district was, in short, bugs. In few of those aforementioned tropical forests could I plop myself down on the ground for lunch without being swarmed by ants or buzzing bees and wasps or, later in the day, mosquitoes. Puerto Rico, in truth, has all of those, but in this mountain forest, they are not abundant, and therefore not a nuisance, allowing for explorations without slathering oneself in plastic-melting DEET, or layers of protective clothing and facial nets. And a big part of why those accoutrements are not needed comes back around to the frogs.


A ‘Critically Endangered’ mahogany coqui, so named for its rich bronzy coloration.

Frogs and anolis lizards are the dominant vertebrate predators of insects. Birds play a part too, both native residents and neotropical migrants that overwinter in Puerto Rico. But frogs and lizards rule the show. The sound of common coquis calling, particularly after an evening rain, is the sound of Puerto Rico’s forest. And a trained ear can tease out several more species. Norman Greenhawk has such an ear, and leads the project’s ongoing herpetofaunal research, helping to answer such questions as how the different forestry treatments applied at the site affect frog and anole diversity and abundance.

While in the field this past winter, we also collected frogs to assess the presence and impact of chytridiomycosis, a fungal disease that is linked to the decline of amphibian populations around the globe. Our team of intrepid volunteers drew on those childhood frog-catching skills and collectively caught a total of 74 frogs, sampled them for the fungus, and released them back where we caught them. Included in our captures were several ‘critically endangered’ species, like the mahogany and locust coquis.


Earthwatch volunteers swabbing a frog to test for chytridiomycosis, a fungal disease that is wiping out amphibian populations around the globe.

As a wildlife biologist, I loved the herp work. But at the core, the Earthwatch Puerto Rico’s Rainforest project is about restoration, not only of the forests themselves, but also restoring the skillsets to effectively and sustainably utilize forest resources (wood and non-timber projects) to the Puerto Rican community, strongly linking healthy ecology and economy for this small island nation. A large component of the field research we worked on assesses valuable hardwood tree growth in control vs. thinned plots (plots in which trees that might compete for light and nutrients are removed from the plot, thereby releasing focal timber trees from that competition and hopefully promoting increased growth). We collected several metrics on over 250 trees, including dbh (diameter at breast height), crown class (an indicator of competition for light), and the surrounding forest basal area (a measure of how crowded the focal tree is by the trees surrounding it).

Earthwatch volunteer Colleen Casey and Co-PI Thrity Vakil assess the health and growth of a young Palo de Jazmin transplant.

Earthwatch volunteer Colleen Casey and Co-PI Thrity Vakil assess the health and growth of a young Palo de Jazmin transplant.

Working with co-PI Thrity Vakil, we also assessed the growth and health of two of the most critically endangered species of plants in the world, Palo de Jazmin (down to four mature trees in the wild), and Palo de Nigua (known by only seven mature plants in the wild). Seedlings provided by the US Fish and Wildlife Service were planted at Las Casas de la Selva just over a year ago, and the research team checked in on nearly 150 of those, measuring the trees, checking for damage, mold and insect infestations, and liberating them from vines and crowding. It was amazing to have such a “hands-on” interaction with these critically endangered plants- not unlike handling California Condor or Whooping Crane chicks. The team also collected 30 seedlings of the caimitillo tree for later transplanting throughout the forest. Though birds are the target seed dispersers for these trees, sometimes we ‘two-legged mammals’ can play that role too.

Which leads me to wrap up with another target of restoration: the restoration of members of the public as contributing participants in vital research, and that is what Earthwatch is all about.

An Eruption of Citizen Science in Nicaragua

The story of a volunteer’s innovative contribution to volcano research.

By Keegan Dougherty

When citizens meet scientists, exciting things happen. Massive data sets are collected, critical funding is raised, and ideas are shared. On the expedition Exploring an Active Volcano in Nicaragua last March, I witnessed an unexpected synergy of a citizen and a scientist collaborating to solve a simple research problem.

What resulted was a pioneering use of a brand new software that may change the study of extinct lava tubes for volcanologists everywhere.


On our first day assisting the Earthwatch scientists on the slopes of Masaya, Dr. Guillermo Caravantes, one of the lead volcanologists on the expedition, asked if any of the volunteers were feeling particularly intrepid that day. Guillermo recently completed his PhD studying Masaya with Dr. Hazel Rymer at the Open University. Now a fully-employed geoscientist, Guillermo was taking time-off from work to tackle a completely different type of volcanology research. To start, he needed two volunteers in a search for entrances to empty lava tubes—cave-like channels formed by earlier lava flows—under the thorn-ridden dry tropical forests flanking the northeast side of the active volcano.

I jumped at the opportunity to join Guillermo for our first adventure of the expedition.

Cliff Gill, a volunteer who splits his time between Missouri and Alaska as an aerial survey pilot, politely volunteered when no one else did. We were led into the brambles by a Masaya National Park Ranger, Carlos Molina Palma, who had been patrolling the park for over a decade and knew the trails well.


Tramping through the forest after Carlos turned out to be crucial for the research. The lava tubes have had thousands of visitors in the centuries since their formation, mostly vampire and insectivorous bats, but also the Contras, film-maker biologists, and pre-Columbian peoples. The previous visitors’ respective guano, footprints, rubbish, and pottery fragments still litter the floors of many lava tubes. Yet despite all this traffic, the tubes have never been mapped. In fact, the only known map of the lava tubes was a mental one, resting between Carlos’ ears.

These cooled lava tubes were formed when bubbling basaltic lava poured out of the Masaya crater and flooded the its flanks. As the lava crept down slope, the top of the flow cooled faster forming an insulating roof over the molten lava below. The old tubes left behind from previous flows can act like underground superhighway for future eruptions, allowing the lava to flow freely without the traffic and obstacles on the surface.

Once Guillermo took GPS coordinates of all of the lava tubes that Carlos showed us, the task was simple – Guillermo would bring back volunteers every day to each cave entrance to measure the dimensions, slope, and angle of the tube within. Simple enough, right?


This is where the magic happened. As a caving enthusiast and an aerial surveyor, Cliff is tuned-in to the latest software releases in remote sensing, including that a new tool developed by Agisoft which creates 3-D renderings of interior spaces from photos taken by a regular digital camera. Cliff had been posting about his use of the software in online caving forums and message boards to see if this software could gain traction, but somehow it hadn’t garnered much interest.


As we peered into the first dark, bat-filled lava cave, a light must have gone off in Cliff’s mind – he could use his high-powered caving lights to illuminate the caves, snap photos with his digital camera, and render the images on his laptop back at the hotel. By coincidence, Cliff had brought his laptop, with the Agisoft PhotoScan software already loaded; he had no idea this was part of the research – this was serendipity. When Cliff shared his revelation, I remember Guillermo asking a few clarifying questions, then his look of disbelief, repeating something to the effect of “Wow, this changes everything” as the realization of what was possible sunk in.


The previous week, the best Guillermo could do was sketch the dimensions of tube interiors. Now, with Cliff’s ingenious use of the software, he could build a 3-D tour of the lava tubes and create a detailed map with existing maps to share with the National Park. Guillermo will soon publish his findings and volcanologists around the world will be able to study the morphologies of the lava tubes with detail and scale previously unavailable.

As the expedition went on, the results came in and the whole team became giddy with Cliff and Guillermo’s success. When Guillermo gave a presentation of his findings on the last night of the expedition, taking us on a 3-D tour of the largest lava cave, the excitement of the team was palpable.

This is the magic of citizen science. Not only are the citizen volunteers providing funding and manpower, they’re sharing the inspiration and know-how that accelerates the pace of research, and that is what truly “changes everything.”

From Loons to Cocoons

Fifteen years ago, Earthwatch volunteer Tim Bonebrake went on an expedition to study loons in Maine. Today, Tim is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Hong Kong and teaches his students about the importance of field research. 

Volunteers study loons on our current Loons of the Gulf Oil Spill expedition

Volunteers study loons on our current Loons of the Gulf Oil Spill expedition.

First Time Researcher: Listening to Loons When Tim was a sophomore in high school, his biology teacher, and Earthwatch Expedition alum, guided him to his first opportunity as a citizen scientist. “I applied for an Earthwatch fellowship to go on an expedition and thankfully, they accepted me,” Tim recalled. “Loons in Maine examined the effects of mercury contamination on loon behavior.” This was Tim’s first research experience. “This highly educational and awe-inspiring expedition sparked my interest that would later flourish into a love for environmental sciences,” Tom conveyed.

Volunteers collecting data on Gulf loons

Volunteers collecting data on Gulf loons

While Tim was on the expedition, he and his group jumped onto their boat and set out to catch up with loons in their natural habitat. “We made distress calls of baby loons and waited for adult loons to approach the boat.” One person was tasked to hold the spotlight on the boat, “when the light shone on the loons, they froze like deer in headlights. It was a miraculous sight to see,” said Tim. Tim was tasked with holding the loon for data collection and observation. But his job was no easy mission. “The loons in Maine are the heaviest in all of North America, so holding one of these birds while taking wingspan measurements, feather and blood samples was by no means easy,” Tim said. Some loons in this area can weigh over 16 pounds, and their bodies are so heavy relative to their wing span that they need about 100 to 600 foot “runway” in order to take off.

Volunteers measure the wingspan of a loon in the Gulf of Mexico

Volunteers measure the wingspan of a loon in the Gulf of Mexico.

Loons are most known for their unusual calls, which vary from wails to tremolos to yodels. You can listen to a loon here! “Now that is a noise I will never forget,” said Tim. Growing Into A Scientist: Onto Butterflies It wasn’t long before Tim earned his B.S. in Environmental Sciences from the University of California, Berkeley and then my PhD in Biology at Stanford University.” By then, Tim’s curiosity of species had cocooned into a passion. Tim studied numerous butterfly populations throughout North and Central America before completing his dissertation: Global change implications of adaptation to climatic variability. His understanding of butterflies and their role did not stop there. “My colleague and collaborator, Vu Van Lien, ran the Earthwatch expedition Butterflies of Vietnam for six years.”

Eathwatch volunteers identify more than 200 different butterfly species in Vietnam

Eathwatch volunteers identify more than 200 different butterfly species in Vietnam.

By the expedition’s conclusion, the data enabled Tim and Dr. Lien Vu to understanding of the relationship between climate and butterfly populations. Teaching the Scientists of the Future Today, as a professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, Tim is trying to create a new wave of citizen scientists. “I encourage my students to do field work because, as tedious as it is, it is an integral part of science. I try to get my students involved in my research because ecology is not something you can do alone, especially when we need large, long term data sets. That’s why Earthwatch is such a great organization because it has citizen scientists who are willing to volunteer their time and do that necessary work.”

Tim conducting his own research in California.

Tim working at one of his research sites in California.

Naturally, That’s My Opinion

Hi! I’m Jackie Pomposelli and I have been the Development Coordinator at Earthwatch for the past two years. I am currently an active member in Boston’s environmental scene, participating in environmental protests surrounding oil and climate change, and I am currently getting my Masters in Sustainability and Environmental Management at Harvard Extension. I’m not one to shy away from hot topics about conservation, and am taking over Unlocked this week to talk about three hot stories making the rounds in environmental news today.

We’ve Used Up All the Resources the Earth Can Provide For the Year

Depletion of our natural resources

Depletion of our natural resources.

It is no secret that the planet is under constant pressure to sustain its growing population. Last week, The Daily Mail discussed the fact that we have already used up the allowable resources the planet can provide in a year and it’s only August. How alarming right?

Too many people think of their carbon footprint as an intangible thing. What difference does it make if I leave the faucet running while I brush my teeth? Who cares if I leave the air-conditioning on all day while I am at work? Is that really going to have an effect on the entire planet? The simple answer is Yes.

Four-fifths of the world’s population is currently using more natural resources than their country can handle in any given year. As a result, people have thrust the world into an environmental emergency. People need to start seeing their carbon footprint as a palpable part of themselves and their everyday existence. The mindset that one person can’t have a big enough effect on the environmental crisis is almost as dangerous as the crisis itself. Of course, fixing the problem will also take bigger and more drastic steps than simply changing individual lifestyles, but we need to start somewhere. If we all make a concerted effort to do simple things, like turning off the lights, or riding our bikes to the grocery store, we have hope of not needing more than what our planet can provide to sustain us in the future.

Students Contribute Study on Elephant Behavior

Students on Thinking Like An Elephant in Thailand.

Students on Thinking Like An Elephant in Thailand.

This article, featured in the New York Times, was particularly fascinating for two reasons. First, it’s about a study done by Dr. Josh Plotnik, an Earthwatch scientist who investigates elephant behavior on our expedition Thinking Like An Elephant in Thailand. The second, and I think most motivating part of the article, is the fact that teenagers have had direct participation and effect in Dr. Plotnik’s study.

Young environmentalists are invaluable to scientific research. Raising awareness for environmental issues at a young age is proven to have profound effects on the environmental opinion of the future. Young students are the future of science, and if places like Earthwatch can spark interest and passion in the younger generations, there is a hope that these generations may put scientific research at the forefront of the environmental debate.

These students are the key to carrying on the belief that there is a lot more research that needs to be done before we can truly understand the diverse and ever-changing ecosystems that exist on Earth.

Red Deer ‘Breeding Earlier Due to Climate Change

Red Deer Breeding Earlier Due to Climate Change

Red Deer-Breeding-Earlier-Due-to-Climate-Change

Oftentimes, the narrative about climate change is one of dramatically changing weather patterns and temperatures. This article tells another story. Featured on, scientists have written about a recent effect of climate change: red deer are now breeding earlier in the year due the changing weather. Because spring and summer are longer, that means feeding season for the deer are longer too. This change in weather is also having an effect in deer behavior. Red deer are now giving birth earlier in the year, creating questions about what effects these changes will have on the animal’s population. This is becoming an all-too-familiar tale being told in environmental science.

We can see and measure the significant climate changes occurring throughout the world, whether it’s the melting ice caps or an influx of great white sharks in the waters off of Cape Cod, but it remains to be seen what long-term effects this will have on the planet. This is why continuing scientific research is imperative.

The world needs solid evidence from research to be able to understand what larger impacts small changes in animal behavior may have on an entire ecosystem. This evidence will be the first step to answering the many questions scientists have about what future effects climate change will have on the world and its inhabitants.

What’s Next?

Thinking critically about environmental issues is something I have enjoyed since college. As an Earthwatch employee who has joined scientific research in California, Puerto Rico, and Costa Rica, I can’t help but try and connect all that I have learned in the field to my everyday life.

As I continue my education, I plan to enhance my knowledge about these important topics, and apply what I have learned to educating others. Feel free to start an open dialogue about these topics in the comments section. I would love to hear you think, and whether or not you agree or disagree with me!

Living a Norwegian Whale’s Tale

Earthwatch volunteer Jim Stevenson headed to Norway last month on the inaugural Investigating Whales and Dolphins of the Norwegian Arctic expedition. During his time on the Arctic sea, Jim and the rest of the volunteers got up close and personal with a pod of more than 20 killer whales!

Jim’s journey began when he submitted a story to BBC Wildlife’s Nature Writer of the Year contest. Jim’s fishing tale, Miller’s Thumb, beat out more than 160 entries to win the grand prize. He tells the story of catching small fish in a river as a small boy, and how those memories stay with him today. The prize earned him a space on the expedition, and he shared his experience with us.

Jim Stevenson seeks fish in his local river.

Jim Stevenson seeks fish in his local river.

We’re Surrounded… By Killer Whales!

On Investigating Whales and Dolphins of the Norwegian Arctic, scientists and the research team were on a mission to investigate the behaviors and needs of dolphins and sperm, killer, and humpback whales.

“The research we helped with in Norway was incredible,” Jim said. “We assisted the scientists by recording whale sightings from two whale-safari boats, a ferry, and the Andenes lighthouse, taking photographs and using a GPS and sound recording device to locate the whales.”

Norwegian boat volunteers in the Norwegian Arctic.

Norwegian boat volunteers in the Norwegian Arctic.

Volunteers are conducting whale sound recordings because sperm whales have a complex social life and navigate in the dark using echo-location. “One morning out on the water, we found two sperm whales to add to our data collection,” Jim said. “That same afternoon, aboard the boat, we spotted a humpback whale that stayed on the surface for only minutes at a time.” Jim then described one of the most memorable days of his life. “We then caught sight of a pod of four killer whales that we then followed for over an hour. By the end of the afternoon, we were surrounded by over 20 killer whales that came very close to the boat. I will never forget that afternoon.”

One of 20 killer whales surrounding the boat Jim was conducting research from.

One of 20 killer whales surrounding the boat Jim was conducting research from.

Jim and his team of volunteers are in Norway to increase knowledge of these species in Norwegian waters, and contribute to the conservation of the marine environment. This research will ultimately be shared with the local communities to raise awareness of marine mammal importance and offer practical alternatives to mistreatment of the whales here.

A Stone’s Throw from the North Pole

Volunteers on this expedition stay 300 miles inside the Arctic Circle at the village of Andenes, a point at the end of the island of Andøya. “I tried to research the area ahead of time,” Jim explained, “but neither Google Earth nor the maps that I had showed any detail because it used to be a Cold War naval base. That was exciting for me to learn more about!”

Jim’s home during the expedition, the foot of a lighthouse, was an ideal spot to explore the Arctic flora and fauna of Norway. “With 24 hours of daylight a day, we had plenty of time for sight-seeing,” Jim said. He researched plant life in the area before heading to Norway, and because of his extensive knowledge, was asked to give a talk to the guides and volunteers on the expedition. “I talked about the seabirds we would see, puffins especially. We were all excited about the prospect of seeing these stocky Arctic seabirds!”

The Andenes lighthouse where Jim and the other volunteers stayed.

The Andenes lighthouse where Jim and the other volunteers stayed.

Telling of a Whale’s Tale

Jim and the other volunteer’s help researching whales throughout the waters of the Arctic is a tremendous help for Earthwatch scientists on finding ways to protect these fragile species. While writing is what landed Jim in Norway, his writing continued once he got there – this time blogging about his experience in the field. Here is an excerpt:

Our vision of the whale is based on art and literature from a time when the only view of a whole whale from the descriptions from the whaling men themselves. From our world, suspended between ocean and atmosphere, all we can see of a sperm whale is the top of its head and part of its back. This animal is helpless on the surface because it needs to charge its blood with oxygen for fifteen minutes before exhaling all the air from its body and descending to the invisible depths where we cannot follow, for over an hour. So, although we can claim to have seen a sperm whale, we have only just touched the surface.

Read Jim’s full blog, Whale-Spot.

A sperm whale’s fluke, the distinctive part of its anatomy most commonly seen by observers.

A sperm whale’s fluke, the distinctive part of its anatomy most commonly seen by observers.

Congratulations, Jim, on your successful writings, and for sharing your stories with the Earthwatch community and beyond!

Earthwatchers Make History in the Water

Earthwatch volunteers recently returned from a two-week expedition Snorkeling to Protect Reefs in the Bahamas and conducted 19 patch reef surveys, more than any previous expedition.

Snorkeling in the Bahamas: Why Are We Here Again?

Kyle Hutton, team leader, took ten teenagers from the United States and the United Kingdom to the Bahamas to help scientists figure out the importance of patch reefs and mangroves for protecting the shoreline and supporting fishing communities. “These areas are incredibly important nursery grounds for fish in the area,” Kyle told us.

Kyle explaining to the volunteers the purpose of this coral research

Kyle explaining to the volunteers the purpose of this coral research

All over the world, scientists are studying huge coral reefs, like the Great Barrier Reef and the Andros Coral Reef, but not a lot of research is typically conducted on smaller, patch reefs. These small patch reefs are incredibly important for studying fish development and climate change.

“On this project, we are gathering all the info we can on patch reefs and fish counts to try to figure out why some small patch reefs have an abundance of fish, and why others are practically desolate,” Kyle said.

When teams first arrive on the project, each person is designated a specific role. “One person will become the resident expert in parrot fish, and another person is in charge of angel fish,” he explained. It is that team member’s job to identify and keep track of all instances of their designated fish within a specific reef. Other team members are in charge of evaluating the actual patch reef itself. Patch reefs can range in size from 5 to 30 feet. “That person’s job is to take all the physical measurements of the patch reef,” he said. “They evaluate the length and depth, and then go through with a chain to record all the nooks and crannies to evaluate how complex each patch reef is.”

Some of the patch reefs might have less than 20 fish, and others could have thousands. The research aims to figure out why fish are attracted to different patch reefs.

A student volunteer dives down to count XXX fish in the reef

A student volunteer dives down to count angel fish in the patch reef

Rockstar Team: More Patch Reefs Than Ever Before

“We collected data on the most patch reefs we’ve ever measured on an Earthwatch Expedition,” said scientist Alistair Harborne. Of all twelve Earthwatch Expeditions that have headed to the Bahamas before, the record was only 14. “This group did double the work of what the average team that heads to the Bahamas accomplishes,” Kyle said.

 Throughout the two weeks, Harborne and Kyle both knew that this team had the potential to accomplish a historic amount of research. “The group make-up was ideal,” Kyle said. “All of the students were incredible energetic and athletic, and in some instances we would head out in the mornings and do 4 or 5 patch reefs in a single day.” The group did have some days of bad weather, and were stuck on land because of thunder and lightning, but in the end, the group surveyed a total of 19 patch reefs.

A student volunteer examining the make-up of the reef

A student volunteer examining the make-up of the patch reef

Beyond the Research: A Spark Is Lit

The research that Kyle’s team was able to accomplish is invaluable for the patch reefs and for the Bahamian ecosystem as a whole. “The information is really instrumental,” Kyle said. “If you know which areas are abundant for fish and are important to the healthy function of the patch reefs, you can help local governments create marine preserves.”

Why do some patch reefs have thousands and fish and others have less than ten? “This research will hopefully give us a lot of answers that we don’t have right now. Is it the reef’s proximity to land? Or the algae cover which is influenced by climate change?”

The research helps more than just the patch reefs in the Bahamas, too. “The real reason I lead these teams of students is because of the influence we have on them,” Kyle said. “It’s such a pinnacle point in a kid’s life and it’s an incredible experience to see that spark light up in them when they get it. When they finally realize that they can have an actual impact on the environment.”

Some of the volunteers on this expedition had already shown signs of continuing their research journeys. “I can say with the utmost confidence that at least two of the students on this expedition will be heading down the marine biology path once they’re back at school,” Kyle said. “One of the volunteers was even talking about returning to the school where we stayed while we were on the expedition. It’s clearly an influential life experience for them.”

Kyle and the team after a long day snorkeling

Kyle and the team after a long day snorkeling

Kyle and his team collected an unprecedented amount of research, and you can get involved too! From the Bahamas, to the Seychelles, to Australia, Earthwatch volunteers are constantly collecting invaluable amounts of data on coral reefs all around the world. Want to join the expedition Kyle went on? Read more about our Snorkeling to Protect Reefs in the Bahamas.

Turtles, Volcanoes, and 150,000 Kids

Three years ago, British geology student Kimberley Wyatt flew to Costa Rica to protect baby turtles from egg poachers. She was so inspired by the work accomplished by her and her team that since returning, she’s been educating her fellow Brits on saving marine life in their own backyard.

Kimberley with a baby turtle after hatching.

Kimberley with a baby turtle after hatching.

Saving Turtles: It All Started In A Volcano

It all started when Kimberley was studying for a degree in geology and needed research experience. She applied for an Earthwatch student fellowship to study active volcanoes in Central America. While she was there, one of the other volunteers  mentioned a previous expedition she had been on helping to conserve enormous sea turtles in Costa Rica. It was something she knew she had to be part of immediatelyKimberley didn’t even bother heading home between trips.

“I jumped on a single engine plane and headed straight to Costa Rica.”

Warding Off Poachers To Protect Turtle Eggs

On the beaches of Costa Rica where leatherback sea turtles are under threat of extinction due to egg poaching, Kimberley and the other volunteers would find turtle nests and make sure all of the eggs were safe. “The entire experience was just incredible. We monitored any eggs that looked like they might be in danger.  I felt like we were able to really protect them.”

Over the 10 day period, Kimberley saw five nests hatch. Each nest produces 100 babies and if the nests hatched in the morning, we would have to grab the baby turtles and put them in wet sand containers until the evening. It’s safer for them to head to sea at night.” The babies weren’t the only inspiration for Kimberley. “Seeing that full grown turtle on the beach for the first time is the most moving experience. It’s almost like seeing a dinosaur. They are upwards of 5 feet long! But it’s just heartbreaking to know that only one in a thousand of all leatherback hatchlings will survive. That is what inspired me to to do what I do today.”

Baby leatherback sea turtle after making its way to the ocean.

Baby leatherback sea turtle after making its way to the ocean.

 Teaching 150,000 Kids About Threats to Marine Wildlife

Kimberley’s experience helping to save baby sea turtles propelled her to partner with the Marine Conservation Society, a British organization that promotes conservation throughout the waters of England. “I was so inspired saving those turtles that I knew I had to keep my journey in ocean health going. I started working with the Marine Conservation Society. We travel to schools and trade shows to teach people about saving these animals.”

Since 2006, the Marine Conservation Society where Kimberley volunteers has visited 150,000 elementary school kids across England to help them understand the threats to marine wildlife. “From choosing sustainable fish to eat, to the dangers of long line fishing, or not using plastic in school, we try to teach them everyday practices to promote sustainability and protect our friends in the water,” Kimberley said. “Children are always so interested in my time in Costa Rica. We bring a life size replica of a leatherback sea turtles and their eyes light up when they see the enormity of it. Starting to educate them at such a young age gives me so much hope for the future.”

An adult sea turtle heading back to the shore.

An adult sea turtle heading back to the shore.

Kimberley has been to every continent on Earth, and today works at writing about her journeys around the globe. She still has an itch to head back out on an Earthwatch Expedition. “That trip to Costa Rica really propelled me to follow my passion and stay involved with protecting marine life today. I would love to go on every expedition! Earthwatch has given me the opportunity to do something I would never, ever, be able to do otherwise.”

If you want to join Costa Rican Sea Turtles to help protect baby turtles, Earthwatch still has spots available.

Last Spot to Zimbabwe: One Woman’s Impact on Thousands

Nancy Clark has an incredible passion for helping people. She is a nurse in Vermont, an Earthwatch volunteer, and a founder of the Zienzele Foundation, an organization that helps orphans and their caregivers achieve self-reliance and a better life in Zimbabwe. Her desire to help others knows no bounds. A remarkable chain of events led her to help thousands of people in Africa.

The Last Spot to Zimbabwe

When Nancy’s daughter Megan was preparing for her archaeological dig with Earthwatch in the Caribbean, she left her Earthwatch Expedition Guide on the kitchen table. Nancy picked up the guide and Maternal Health in Africa (which dealt with the nutrition of women and children in Zimbabwe) immediately piqued her interest.

“I called Earthwatch the next day to see if it was possible for me to join, I knew I needed to go.” There was just one spot left. “It was meant to be. The stars aligned and I knew I had to go to Zimbabwe. So that night I went home and told my family I was going to help women and children in Africa, and that was that.”

That summer, Nancy headed to Zimbabwe to conduct health assessments on children and their mothers. She worked alongside Earthwatch scientist Prisca Nemapare, a nutrition professor at Ohio University, and because of Nancy’s nursing background, she became the lead volunteer to handle the health assessments. “I felt like such a valuable volunteer. Talking to the women about what they were eating, how much water they had, how they grew food, their living conditions. It was just all so inspirational for me.” Nancy came home from her trip, moved by the women she worked with, but also extremely motivated. “I knew I couldn’t just be done. My work there was only just beginning.”

Nancy playing a game with some local boys in Zimbabwe

Nancy playing a game with some local boys in Zimbabwe

Nancy didn’t wait long once she was back in Vermont to book her next trip. “I got in touch with Earthwatch, and Prisca and the next summer I went back to Zimbabwe, this time as a team leader for five weeks coaching volunteers and helping the same women.” These voyages to and from Zimbabwe lit a fire in Nancy, that there was something greater for her to contribute to the world. In 2000, she organized a group of nurses from Vermont to take that trip with her.

Not Getting Bogged Down By Politics

At that time, the political conditions in Zimbabwe started to deteriorate, and Nancy’s return trip was almost halted due to Earthwatch’s concern with sending volunteers into an unstable region. (Read last week’s Unlocked article, Safety in Science: How We Prep For Volunteers).

A local family working together on one of the Zienzele garden projects.

A local family working together on one of the Zienzele garden projects.

“I was still in close communication with Prisca so I decided to go on my own,” and throwing caution to the wind, Nancy returned to Zimbabwe. “That trip was incredibly eye opening for me, because all of the women we had relationships with were now taking care of all these orphaned children. Whether the parents had died of AIDS, or malnutrition, there was literally an orphan epidemic.”

Teach a Woman to Fish, Feed Her For a Lifetime

“I felt like I was in over my head,” Nancy said about the overwhelming reality of the situation. “We have to do something. This is why we are here.” Prisca and Nancy then brainstormed the ways they could help this community, and also how the community could help itself. “You know that saying, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime?’, Prisca and I thought of ourselves, we need to teach them sustainable business practices so that no matter if we are here for two weeks, five weeks, five months, they can survive on their own. And that is how we came up with the Zienzele Foundation.” Zienzele means “do it yourself, be self-reliant” and Nancy and Prisca taught these women just that. They even created implementable business plans for the community. “The women realized they knew how to grow vegetables, but didn’t have seeds or fertilizer. They knew how to sew, but didn’t have fabric or sewing machines. They knew how to make traditional Zimbabwean baskets, but didn’t have anyone to sell them to.”

Prisca and Nancy sorting and buying baskets

Prisca and Nancy sorting and buying baskets

Nancy and Prisca supplied the women with necessary tools, like seeds, fertilizer, sewing machines, thread, and needles, with the plan and hope that they would supply resources only one time, and the women would then sustain their own businesses.

“In 2000, we started with two basket-making groups and are up to 23 now. Prisca and I bring them back to the United States and sell them at craft fairs and on our website. The profits from those baskets alone sent 900 kids to school last year, and have sent over 5,000 children to school in all. We started with four garden projects and are now up to 38! The gardens provide food for the women and then whatever is left over, they sell at local markets. Way back when, we started with one sewing project, and today we have nine. They make clothes for their families, sell clothes to the community, and make all of the school uniforms.”

Nancy at a workshop education women on HIV/AIDS

Nancy at a workshop education women on HIV/AIDS

Today, Nancy returns twice a year to Zimbabwe to hold workshops about HIV/AIDS and nutrition, and the Zienzele Foundation launched a new project that allows U.S. families to partner with families in the community where a child is the main provider.

I asked Nancy if she ever thought she would embark on a completely new journey – another Earthwatch Expedition perhaps? She laughed and said that although if it weren’t for Earthwatch, she never would have met Prisca and this whole journey probably never would have started, “take a look how deep I am in in Zimbabwe. Can you imagine if I took off for Thailand or South America? What would happen then? I don’t even want to think about it!”

While Maternal Health in Africa is no longer an expedition funded by Earthwatch, the organization continues to support many programs in Africa. Earthwatch can’t thank Nancy enough for all the incredible work she’s done worldwide, and for sharing her amazing story with us.

Safety in Science: How We Prep For Volunteers

As a Program Coordinator for Earthwatch, one of the most rewarding and exciting aspects of my job is the opportunity to go out into the field. Visiting one of our expedition sites is thrilling because we get a firsthand chance to experience the research we support, and have the opportunity to travel to beautiful parts of the world to work with our world-class scientists. Recently, I was lucky enough to travel to Cortez, Colorado to visit our Uncovering the Mysteries of Colorado’s Ancient Basketmakers expedition in preparation for this summer’s volunteers. These visits happen before volunteers arrive and are to identify potential risks, manage those risks and train the scientists, in this case archaeologists Dr. Shirley Powell and Susan Ryan of Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, in Earthwatch policies and procedures.

Group of volunteers excavating at the location I checked for snakes

Group of volunteers excavating at the location Sarah checked for snakes

Volunteer Safety: One Of Our Top Concerns

We thoroughly train the scientists on what to do in the event of an emergency and work together to highlight potential risks while mitigating whatever risks we can, and minimizing the risks that are inherent to the work being done. On this expedition, volunteers dig to uncover clues about a 1,500 year-old agricultural society in Colorado.

I first headed to the project’s dig sites on the 1200-acre Indian Camp Ranch, where Earthwatch volunteers will spend most of their days. I evaluated the tasks that volunteers will be participating in to make sure they are suitable for all ages and physical fitness levels. Volunteers will be digging on the ground, lifting up to 100 lbs of dirt a day, sifting through ancient artifacts, and trekking through various landscapes. I have to make sure all of our volunteers are adequately prepared to participate in these tasks to eliminate the risk of injury and make sure we are safely able to complete the research.

Scientist Steve Copeland demonstrating volunteer tasks

Scientist Steve Copeland demonstrating volunteer tasks

One danger that was highlighted by the scientists, is the presence of venomous snakes in this region. Each of the staff on the expedition reiterated that it is essential and mandatory to brief volunteers when they arrive in Colorado on this danger and come up with a viable plan in case snakes are encountered.

Sleeping In The Bunks: Testing Volunteer Accommodations 

My time in Colorado also included a thorough assessment of the volunteer living accommodations to make sure they comply with our safety standards. Because this expedition is based in the U.S., I didn’t need to conduct a visit to the local area hospitals, but depending on the nature of the area’s medical services, it is common practice for us to visit local hospitals and embassies, in the rare case that we need to use those services. I stayed in replicas of the primary traditional home of the Navajo people, the same accommodations where our volunteers will stay to make sure the huts were safe and secure.

Replica of a traditional Navajo home where volunteers stay

Replica of a traditional Navajo home where volunteers stay

It’s no surprise that as an Earthwatch employee I am also a huge wildlife enthusiast, and Crow Canyon did not disappoint. During my stay I saw prairie dogs, mule deer, black-tailed jackrabbits, turkey vultures, marmots (there is a particularly curious pair living in the rock wall next to campus headquarters) as well as coyote and raccoon tracks. Scientists Dr. Shirley Powell and Susan Ryan are both fantastic scientists who, aside from being incredibly knowledgeable about their work, are wonderful hosts. One day, Dr. Powell treated me to a personal tour of the town to showcase all of the local amenities available to volunteers. The visit to Colorado, both highly productive and very enjoyable, left me feeling excited and reassured that the upcoming teams of Earthwatch volunteers will be in great hands this summer!

Side by Side: Earthwatch and Local Communities Conserve the Amazon

Julie Hudson, head of Sustainability in Equity Research at UBS, recently embarked on a two-week expedition aboard a riverboat in the Amazon with Earthwatch scientist Dr. Richard Bodmer and his team of volunteers to work with local communities on his long-standing rainforest conservation effort.

Julie shared with us a firsthand account of how this community of people is assessing the human footprint on the plants, animals, land, and waterways in this region, and taking steps in the name of conservation.

Conservation Efforts in the Hands of the Local Community

Both in my professional and personal life, I have felt a pull towards conservation. This has taken me to some far-flung places on Earthwatch Expeditions. It worries me that in some places, conservation gets a bad name. This may be because seemingly bossy individuals come to developing countries and tell them what’s good for the environment, disregarding local traditions. The refreshing thing about Earthwatch Expeditions is that scientists and volunteers work together with the local community, implementing field experiments and trying out new approaches.

copyright: Julie Hudson

Local experts teaching volunteers

Volunteers board a riverboat in the Amazon to work alongside a biologist, a local field expert in wildlife, local ecology students, and other Earthwatch volunteers at the largest protected floodplain in the Amazon. This floodplain (an area next to a river) is home to thousands of people who live along its banks, and houses a diversity of plant and animal life. Some of the human residents of the forest are leading conservation work throughout this area, and our Earthwatch team arrived on a restored riverboat to aid in that mission with the help of Dr. Richard Bodmer and his research team. As many others before us, we came to support of these community-based conservation efforts by collection information on the plants and animals here.

The team setup of a scientist, local expert, students and volunteers, allows for great multitasking. The local expert is the most likely to spot better-disguised animals, the volunteers’ many pairs of eyes make data collection easier when the wildlife in question won’t sit still, while the scientist makes sure the data are properly collected, and students serve as the scientists of the future. Earthwatchers, briefed and trained in the field, bring several pairs of hands to lighten the workload of gathering data.

The amazing thing about this particular area of the rainforest is that locals in the community have been given ownership of wildlife management plans, and continue hunting for food without putting vulnerable species at risk. These local experts work together with conservationists to identify species that are resilient to hunting, and then create resource management processes to protect the vulnerable. The local hunters using these processes are able to keep records indicating how the species are doing. Success can be assessed when locals and scientists work together to make changes based on the feedback collected. Scientists turn this data into standardized units to understand what is happening to animal populations.

A Day in the Life: Volunteers Assist in Efforts

Throughout our time aboard the boat, the team worked on both water and land, focusing on fish, dolphins, birds, monkeys, and the alligator-relative caiman to evaluate the abundance of each species. Field work here is a rich experience. Birds, monkeys, and dolphins are counted, caiman are measured and returned to the water, and fish are caught by self-sustaining methods, counted and thrown back in, or occasionally put on the dinner table. We work side by side with the local community to ensure data collection on this expedition is as non-invasive as humanly possible.

For us new arrivals, what is caught on fishing trips is an experience in itself – we found local species of ancient cat fish with an exoskeleton, a large numbers of piranhas, and even a replica of the prehistoric lung fish that took the first steps on dry land millions of years ago.

Not only were the sights incredible, but the sounds and smells were something you can’t even imagine. One morning, we heard what sounded like a football crowd in the distance, which turned out to be hundreds of red howler monkeys. Another day the sound of large raindrops falling on leaves was actually thousands of cormorant wings beating off the water as they fed on fish.

copyright: Julie Hudson

Birds feeding along the waters of the Amazon.

Earthwatch Volunteers Support Invaluable Amazon Conservation Initiatives 

Earthwatch scientist Dr. Richard Bodmer explained to volunteers that the most important factor in creating these conservation plans for communities combines planet and animal biology with the economic reality of the region.

The Amazon River, ten times larger than any other, is the most powerful river system in the world. Scientists suspect that climate change may be disrupting this system and the impact of changes in rainfall patterns from thousands of miles away could be catastrophic for the plants, animals, and humans here. In years to come, we may see ourselves responding to an environment that is changing so rapidly that vital resources of food and water would be compromised. Collaborative conservation in which plant, animal, and human priorities are balanced, has never been more urgently needed.

copyright: Julie Hudson

A sunset along the Samiria River banks.

A big thank you to Julie for sharing her expedition story with us and for boating along the Amazonian Rainforest with Earthwatch to better understand local conservation efforts. Want to have a hand in this collaborative conservation effort? Donate to Earthwatch or better yet, go on this expedition with Dr. Bodmer and see firsthand how this river feeds everything it touches.

Aside from being head of ESG & Sustainability at UBS, Julie Hudson is a Visiting Business Fellow with the Smith School of enterprise and the Environment, Oxford University. Publications co-authored with Paul Donovan, a senior Economist at UBS: From Red to Green? How the Financial Credit Crunch Could Bankrupt the Environment (Earthscan, 2011) and Food Policy and the Environmental Credit Crunch, From Soup to Nuts (Routledge, 2013).

A Mother’s Love

Earthwatch super-mom Jennie-Jo White has been on 13 Earthwatch Expeditions – two with her daughter, Maude, and two with three of her grandchildren. In honor of Mother’s Day, I chatted with Jennie-Jo about the beginning of her Earthwatch journey and how her love for Earthwatch has transcended from her, to her daughter, to her grandchildren.

The Start of It All

Jennie-Jo’s Earthwatch journey started 26 years ago when her daughter, Maude was selected for an Earthwatch student fellowship. “When Maude was 17, she was picked out of hundreds of students to go on an Earthwatch Expedition to Alaska. She had the most fantastic time and learned so much. Since then, it had been ingrained in my brain that I just had to join one of these amazing trips.”

Jennie-Jo and Maude straddling the equator after their trip to the Galapagos

Jennie-Jo and Maude straddling the equator after their trip to the Galapagos

By a stroke of luck, Jennie-Jo just happened to bump into an Earthwatch team at a teaching conference and her passion to go on an expedition was reignited. “Before I retired, I was a high school science teacher, and was attending a teaching conference. Earthwatch just so happened to be there giving a presentation and after watching the presentation, I headed over to the Earthwatch booth and my energy for going on one of the expeditions was reinvigorated. I signed up to study Killer Whales in Washington State and I’ve been hooked ever since!” That was way back in 1999, and since then Jennie-Jo has taken two trips with her daughter and two more with her grandkids!

Like Mother Like Daughter

After Jennie-Jo’s expedition to study Killer Whales, she asked Maude if she would be interested in going on a trip together. “‘Of course!’ Maude said, she had wanted to go back on an Earthwatch Expedition ever since her first trip.” Jennie-Jo and Maude went on their first trip together to Easter Island to study and preserve the ancient culture there and a few years later headed to the Galapagos to help protect bird species there.
“I have been on two expeditions with my daughter, the first one was to Easter Island and the second one was to the Galapagos. The experiences are just absolutely incredible, and sharing them with my daughter is really special.” Jennie-Jo and Maude realized that they traveled really well together, “Maude is more organized, and I just go with the flow, we make a good team.”

Jennie-Jo photographing a tortoise in the Galapagos

Jennie-Jo photographing a tortoise in the Galapagos

Jennie-Jo’s favorite memory from the Galapagos expedition stems from a conversation she and Maude had with one of the scientists. “One of the scientists on the project was so well versed in the history of the island we couldn’t stop listening to him. Apparently, he knew of an island legend about the catalyst for Darwin’s theory of evolution.” Jennie-Jo further described how the scientist told them of a hundred year old story, “when Darwin was studying in the Galapagos, he was talking to one of the island officials who said ‘If you bring me a turtle shell from any of the Galapagos islands, I can tell you which island the shell came from.’” Jennie-Jo said that Darwin’s theory of evolution stemmed from that conversation, “the fact that turtles from each of the islands had distinct and specific shell differentiations and started the process in Darwin’s brain. His theory of evolution stemmed from this conversation!”

The connection really brought the experience full circle for Jennie-Jo, “the housing where the volunteers stay on the island is the original Black Bear where Darwin originally landed in the Galapagos! It was amazing that we were so close to that history.”

Jennie-Jo and Maude’s mutual passion for the planet meant busy days and fun nights. “We spent out days studying birds and building gardens and our nights making friends with our other volunteers.” And the pair’s hard work paid off. “The scientist on the project only expected us to get a quarter of the way through building this experiential garden,” Jennie-Jo said. “But because we all worked together so well, we were able to finish the entire garden during our two week expedition.” Aside from growing their own mother/daughter bond, Jennie-Jo and Maude built relationships with other volunteers too. “Maude and I always have the most fantastic time when we go on Earthwatch Expeditions and the people we meet become lifelong friends. We develop really great relationships.”

Planning to head to Trinidad this summer with two of her grandsons for the Leatherback Sea Turtles expedition, Jennie-Jo’s Earthwatch Expeditions are her most looked forward to trips. “For me, Earthwatch Expeditions are an opportunity for me to travel to exotic places. South America, Costa Rica, Italy. As a woman, it’s so reassuring to be able to safety travel by myself to these far off places. The scientists and staff on the expeditions are so well versed in the culture, I learn things I about the places I go that I would never learn just taking a trip there. I can’t tell you enough how much I look forward to my Earthwatch Expeditions year after year.”

Don’t you want Jennie-Jo to adopt you? Thank you to Jennie-Jo for sharing your great story with us and Happy Mother’s Day to all the mom’s out there – a big hug from Earthwatch!

Earthwatch Goes Broadway!

Participating in seven Earthwatch expeditions over ten years was the inspiration behind playwright Nikki Harmon penning five animal-inspired plays. Nikki’s plays have been performed all around the globe, from the United States to the UK and her latest production will be live in theaters this fall.

Each of her plays has been a hit with audiences both young and old, and I spoke to Nikki about two in particular, both being performed at the University of Central Missouri.

“My entire life I wanted to do two things: work on a dig, and go to Africa.” Nikki said earlier this week. “When I turned 50, I realized that I hadn’t done either. Then I saw an article in the New York Times about Earthwatch and knew that was my opportunity. These expeditions gave me knowledge that I would never have found anywhere else. You see a picture in a book or listen to a lecture, but to actually find something on a dig that hasn’t been touched in thousands of years, that’s a whole different kind of learning.”

From her expedition experiences, Nikki has written plays based on the zebra research team she was on in Kenya, a the Hopi archaeological dig in Arizona, the Cheetah Rescue Project in Namibia, and a Bronze/Late Neolithic Age Dig in Thailand.

A Thai Tale

A Thai Tale, inspired by a 350 year old Banyan Tree she saw on her dig in Thailand recently won the Theatre for Young Audiences National Playwriting Competition, and is scheduled to premiere this September at the University of Central Missouri.

During her expedition to Thailand, Nikki absorbed as much of the culture as possible once she realized her experience would make for the perfect production. “On one of our days off from the dig, we were taken to the Banyan Tree where vendors were selling birds, fish, eels, and turtles all around this tree. The pottery expert on the project explained that at night, the vendors go into the tree and recapture the goods that were sold that day and resell them the next morning. I was so enamored with the story and culture, I knew there was a play somewhere in this.”

The inspiration for Nikki’s most recent play stems from her experience at the Banyan Tree. “Set inside a huge, 35,000 sq. ft. tree, three birds escape with the help of a magician and a bird vendor who rediscovers his lost kind nature. It’ll be a lot of fun for the kids, and hopefully they’ll learn some life lessons from it. There is also this Thai concept that I learned on the expedition that the kids love. ‘Mai Pen Rai’ means ‘not to worry’ and is the Thai way of dealing with life when things get tough.”

Inside the actual Banyan Tree that inspired A Thai Tale

Inside the actual Banyan Tree that inspired A Thai Tale

Kalifa’s Amazing Adventures

A decade earlier, the University of Central Missouri performed another one of Nikki’s plays. Kalifa’s Amazing Adventures, about a young elephant whose life was saved by a local conservationist, was inspired by a firsthand account of a rescue on the Kenyan zebra project.

“One evening at dinner, Ian Craig, the Founding Executive Director of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy told us about how he rescued a baby elephant from a well,” Nikki explained. “For several days the local villagers had heard a baby elephant crying but didn’t know where the cries were coming from. Someone looked down one of the abandoned wells and saw the baby elephant stuck inside.”

Because of the size of the elephant, Ian needed to request backup. “He tried to save her, but because of her size, he needed to call for a helicopter. Once the helicopter arrived, he jumped into the well with a rope, landed on top of the elephant, and wrapped the rope around her. The helicopter flew off to an elephant orphanage with Ian and the elephant safely inside. The orphanage later said that it was their first helicopter delivery they had ever seen! Eighteen months later, the elephant was released into the bush and was so confident that she became the leader of her herd.”

Nikki realized this play needed to be unlike anything she had done before. “Up until this time, I had only written for adults, but I knew this story had to be written for young audiences.  The staff’s passion for the animals helped me to understand their perspective, and showed me that the only way to write the play was for the animals to tell their own story.”

University of Central Missouri production of Kalifa’s Amazing Adventures

University of Central Missouri production of Kalifa’s Amazing Adventures

Coming Full Circle

“My hope is that after seeing my plays, if one child saves an animal in his lifetime, or one parent talks to their child about endangered species, then I have succeeded. And so have the scientists and the projects.”

The plays also help to translate education learned on the projects into schools. “The schools create study guides with drawings of the animals, country maps, and glossaries of terms and languages, so the kids are learning about cultures and sustainability outside of the theater.”

“This is not anything that you can get from a book or a documentary,” Nikki says of her experience in the field. “You have to be there, in the bush, looking eye to eye with a rhino, be near enough for a lioness to pounce, to understand Africa, you have to be there. And not just in a tour bus taking pictures, but be part of it. To feel the dirt between your fingers, the dust in your hair, the scent in your nose, and the joy in your heart. That’s what the Earthwatch projects give you and that’s where the inspiration for my plays come from.”

Nikki Harmon on a Chankillo dig in Peru.

Nikki Harmon on a Chankillo dig in Peru.

Check out some of Nikki’s other plays inspired by Earthwatch expeditions. Your Earthwatch experience could lead you to write a book or direct a film, with more than 50 expeditions all over the world to choose from, it’s impossible not to be inspired!

In the Wild on Earth Day (and the Other 364 Days a Year)

As Earth Day 2013 quickly approaches, there’s always one question buzzing around Earthwatch Headquarters: what are we doing for Earth Day this year? That’s easy, Earthwatch staff members will be assisting in a park clean-up near our offices in Boston, Massachusetts.

But aside from just our staff, what are we doing as an organization? Well, at Earthwatch, we celebrate Earth Day 365 days per year. Every day we continue to make an effort to help conserve our planet. Since 2013 began, at least one Earthwatch team has been out in the field every single day. Every day! Whether it’s protecting the oceans, preserving wildlife, digging up history, or understanding climate change, we are constantly trying to do our part to sustain the planet.

This year, on Monday, April 22nd, volunteers on three Earthwatch Expeditions will be in Trinidad, Seychelles, and Uganda celebrating Earth Day by conducting research, conserving the oceans, and surveying animals.

Trinidad’s Leatherback Sea Turtles

Let’s start with our sea turtle expedition in Trinidad. The research conducted by the scientists, the local conservation group, and Earthwatch volunteers on this expedition is nothing short of amazing. In 2011, all turtle harvesting in coastal waters of Trinidad and Tobago was banned completely because of findings realized on this expedition. Along with the prohibiting of egg harvesting, this research has lead all species of sea turtles in this region to be considered for “species of concern” status. That means leatherback sea turtles are not officially on the Endangered Species List but because of their rapid decline, they are in need of big-time conservation efforts. This year on Earth Day, a team of 8 volunteers will travel to Central America to continue these already incredible efforts by working side-by-side with scientists and a local conservation group to study the 150 sea turtles that nest in the area at night. Last year alone, almost 7,000 sea turtle eggs were successfully laid at the expedition site. Those eggs then hatched into baby turtles who the volunteers helped scurry to the sea.

Recently hatched leatherback sea turtles on their way to the ocean. (copyright Dr. Sam Burgess)

Coral Communities in the Seychelles

Across the Atlantic to the Seychelles, volunteers will work to survey the climate change impacts on coral in the Indian Ocean. A lot of the coral in this area has been bleached as a result of unusually warm temperatures, increased sedimentation, or a lack of plankton from overfishing. Because of the research conducted by scientists and Earthwatch volunteers, it has been discovered that some species of coral are genetically stronger against bleaching than others. That means that one bout with El Nino might destroy a section of coral, but unharm another. Scientists have realized that this weaker, more easily bleached coral can be trained to increase its tolerance to climate change. This on-going Earthwatch research has enabled scientists to identify which areas of coral need more help than others and has literally created a management solution for the Seychelles issue of climate change. This year on Earth Day, volunteers will head back to the Indian Ocean to aid in the conservation of coral reefs in the Indian Ocean.

A volunteers surveys coral in the Seychelles. (copyright Genevieve Pearson)

Tracking Chimps Through the Trees of Uganda

Because 2013 is our first trek into Uganda with citizen scientists, we don’t have any results to report on… yet. In field for the first time this Earth Day, volunteers will explore human, chimpanzee and monkey interactions in the Ugandan rainforest to help scientists develop a strategy for sharing shrinking food supplies. Mysteriously, 15% of the trees here have stopped producing fruit in these forests, trees that are still alive but unable to provide fruit for both humans and chimps. As a result, locals have reported that primates are forced to raid the crops of local farms more frequently, which is of course doesn’t make the farmers very happy. This research hopes to identify reasons for the lack of fruit coming from these trees, by examining various factors from climate to the reduction of pollen in the area. Earthwatch teams will head to Uganda for Earth Day to survey these animals and their environment and with any luck, we will have amazing results to report on Earth Day 2014.

Researchers observing chimpanzees in the rainforest.

Researchers observing chimpanzees in the rainforest.

Each year on Earth Day we take a survey of ways we can help our environment, make our planet more sustainable, and at Earthwatch, we strive for that each and every day. The results from our expeditions will benefit the planet for decades to come. If you’re still looking at ways to make a difference on this Earth Day, or inspired to venture out to Trinidad, Uganda, or the Seychelles visit our Earthwatch Expedition page for more information on our more than 50 expeditions.

Happy Earth Day!

From Fellow to Field Assistant: An Earthwatch Volunteer Evolution

Last summer, Maria Rakka, Marine Biodiversity and Conservation master’s student at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece, joined the Earthwatch Dolphins of Greece program as a student fellow. As with all of our student fellows, Maria’s research contribution was sponsored by a generous donation.

As a result of achievements made by Maria’s team in successfully observing, photographing, and tagging, the dolphins, she was asked to return as a field assistant for the summer of 2013. I had the opportunity to chat with Maria about her past expedition experience and her evolution into one of the team’s leaders.

Maria Rakka conducting research on a boat in the Mediterranean

“My experience last summer on the Dolphins of Greece project was amazing,” Maria said. “I learned so much about the dolphin populations of my country, the risks and threats they face, and the methods used to study them.” Maria’s passion for conserving these dolphins was ignited by having daily interactions in their natural habitat during the expedition. “Getting so close to them every day was an unforgettable experience. Putting into practice everything I learned during my studies was very important, along with the new study approaches I learned, like photo-identification and behavior monitoring.”

Securing her spot as a research assistant on the Dolphins of Greece project was no easy task. Two years of Maria’s collegiate marine career focused on Environmental Biology, and during this time took scuba diving courses. On these dives, Maria’s passion for the underwater world sparked. “I had the opportunity to visit different dive spots in places all over the world. I went to the Azores Islands and the Caribbean Archipelago, trips that made me love the marine environment even more.” Maria went on to teach scuba diving during her Erasmus Studies (what they call internships in Greece) before teaming up with Earthwatch.

When the lead scientist on the project offered Maria the opportunity to return to Dolphins of Greece as a field assistant, she didn’t hesitate to accept. “I love the way the whole project is organized,” Maria said. “Especially the fact that it combines research, conservation and simultaneously works to raise awareness about environmental issues within the Amvrakikos Gulf community.” Maria added. “Joan Gonzalvo and Ioannis Giovos (the lead scientists on this expedition) give presentations on a spherical view of conservation of the marine environment which they show to volunteers through presentations, discussions, and movies which really help to illustrate how we are making an impact.”

The Dolphins of Greece expedition is part of the Ionian Dolphin Project of the Tethys Research Institute, and has monitored dolphins in the Inner Ionian Archipelago and in the Amvrakikos Gulf in Western Greece for the last 20 years. Information about the dolphin population, their behavior, feeding habits, and interaction with other species and with local fisheries is being recorded daily. This data is crucial for managing fisheries and protecting the dolphin populations in the area.

Volunteers get up close and personal with a jumping dolphin. c. Tethys Research Institute

Volunteers get up close and personal with a jumping dolphin. c. Tethys Research Institute

“The data collected by this project has allowed the researchers to prove there is a dramatic decline on the population of endangered short-beaked common dolphins.” Maria explained the direct effect this project is having on the dolphins, “the decline has been linked to the unsustainability of local fisheries, and a result, has led to the collapse of fish-stocks that the dolphins rely on for food.”

While research conducted since 2001 shows the Amvrakikos Gulf hosts one of the highest populations of bottlenose dolphins ever reported in the Mediterranean, these dolphins still face concerns. “High human impact is an issue in the gulf, and poses a great risk to their survival,” Maria said. As a result of these findings, the Scientific Committee of ACCOBAMS (Agreement for the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area) has recommended each one of the study areas be classified as an MPA (Marine Protected Area), restricting human activity in the interest of conserving the gulf’s natural environment.

Participating first hand in making positive changes for these dolphins continues to ignite Maria’s passion for conserving marine life in Greece, and throughout the world. “The opportunity to participate on the Dolphins of Greece expedition as a researcher is very important for me, I am able to hone my skills and gain knowledge that will help me with my future career. Eventually, when I get to the appropriate stage of confidence with knowledge, background, and experience level, I would love to become a lead scientist on a program, maybe even for Earthwatch.”

“The staff and other volunteers created such a friendly and relaxed environment,” Maria said about getting back into the field, “and the site where we stay is beautiful. It’s a small town with friendly people and wonderful scenery. The waters of the Gulf are usually calm and reflect the mountains surrounding the bay to create amazing sunsets. In the afternoons, we would all go for walks on a small island near the site.”

Island near site

Island near the site in the Amvrakikos Gulf c: Maria Rakka

“One of my favorite moments from our trip last year… We tried to cook a traditional Greek dish called mousakas. I had to call my mom and get a handful of tips and after two hours in the kitchen, we were all so hungry that we completely burned our tongues! It was one of the best dinners we had during the program. I had the opportunity to meet incredible people from all over the world. Everyone was self-motivated, collaborative and helpful which in turn, created a beautiful environment.”

Inspired by all of the work being done for these dolphins in the Mediterranean? Visit the Earthwatch website and sign up to join Maria on Dolphins of Greece project this summer.

Like Mother, Like Daughter: A Story of Dolphins & Handbags

For this week’s blog, my intention was to share the adventures of Carol Sellers who recently returned from Egypt on her 6th Earthwatch Expedition, Red Sea Dolphin Project. While gathering details from that adventure, I discovered that her first expedition was taken twenty years ago: Madagascar Lemurs. As a result of this trip to Madagascar, Carol’s daughter Laurel launched a fashion accessory business in New York, importing the works of artisans from Madagascar. Today, Laurel’s company, Mar Y Sol, provides jobs to hundreds of Malagasy artisans who make raffia hats and handbags sold across the globe.

I never would have learned Laurel’s story if not for hearing Carol’s first. It is truly amazing how participating in an Earthwatch Expedition can change your life, as well as the lives of those you interact with – now, and for generations to come. You’ve got to read this…

Carol’s Story – Red Sea Dolphin Project, June 2012
Carol Sellers was interested in volunteering for the Red Sea Dolphin project because she had yet to be to Egypt, and she was eager to snorkel in one of the top dive destinations in the world while participating in cetacean research.

The research team coordinated its efforts with the Egyptian environmental conservation organization HEPCA, the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association. The expedition team was led by principal investigator, Marina Costa, three Milanese researchers, and a British Earthwatch representative. Five Earthwatch volunteers were also on this expedition, including 2 students. Carol Sellers described her experience.

“We received a warm reception as we arrived on the comfortable dive boat that was to be our home for the duration of the expedition. Our days started early as the sun rose and the rumble of the engines started. We had a variety of research tasks, including water and sky observations, hydrophone monitoring, recording data and observing interactions between day trip snorkelers and spinner dolphins who rested in sheltered lagoons during the day.

Many pairs of eyes scanned the sea as we zigzagged along transects watching for fins breaking through the waves. Shouts of a dolphin sighting brought the engines to a halt as everyone hung over the guard rails with cameras and delighted smiles. ‘Count them!’ Marina shouted. ‘Take photos, so we can identify the pods.’ No easy task, as the dolphins slipped under the boat and reappeared to ride our bow waves. We had another chance to do our counts in the afternoons as we snorkeled with them in the quiet lagoons.

To see these amazing mammals swim close enough to reach out and touch them was mesmerizing. Participating in assessing cetacean abundance in a region where no previous research has been done was especially meaningful. Snorkeling along the pristine reefs, we were rewarded with sightings of reef sharks, lion fish, eels, blue spotted feather rays and sea turtles as well as spectacular healthy corals.

Earthwatch Expedition: Red Sea Dolphin Project

Snorkling with Dolphins in the Red Sea

In the evenings we had talks and slide shows from various team members on cetacean behavior, coral bleaching, and other scientific topics. All too soon, we were celebrating our last meal together, sharing photos for a memorable take-home DVD, and exchanging emails and well wishing to new found friends from around the world. The memories of this adventure have enriched my life as have each of the previous five expeditions in which I have participated over the past 20 years.

You never know what impact your trip may make on the world. I feel privileged to support this worthy organization and hope to share in more trips in the future.”

Laurel’s Story – Madagascar Lemurs, 1992
Laurel Brandstetter, Carol’s daughter, has never been on an Earthwatch Expedition. But her mother and step-father, Jim Sellers, joined Earthwatch’s Madagascar Lemurs project two decades ago. Jim Sellers was so moved by the plight of the people of Madagascar that he retired early as an engineer from NASA to help them. Twenty years later, Jim’s step-daughter, Laurel, carries out this mission through a company she founded called Mar Y Sol – translated from Spanish to English as Sea & Sun.

Jim Seller got himself involved in many initiatives to support the people of Madagascar.  For instance, he set up an NGO called Starfish that provided medical volunteers and supplies. He was involved with donating bicycles. And he developed partnerships leveraging the work of local artisans, such as pressed wildflower paper, that he sold in the U.S. at local gift shops to raise money for the Madagascar. Jim raised anywhere between $10k and $30k a year from the sale of his wares.

Laurel was a city planner in New York City, but had previously worked at the grassroots level as a community organizer in Cleveland. After traveling to Madagascar to help Jim fulfill orders, she became disenchanted with her job and quit – armed with a much stronger understanding of what “grassroots” really meant – and got involved with her step-father full time.

“I had no money, no business background, and no knowledge really,” Laurel explained to me. “I was looking for something to sell and import to the United States, and I started seeing beautiful colored baskets and handbags in Madagascar. I brought samples back home to New York and started selling at street fairs and at parties at my house. I started thinking strategically about how I could make the product more sellable. One of the most exciting parts of the job is the cross-cultural exchange of ideas. What might be a basket in Madagascar can be folded into a clutch (purse) in the US.”

Laurel founded Mad Imports in 2003, and brought an intern aboard. Strapped for cash, her intern’s mother loaned Laurel $3k to do her first trade show, where she received her first batch of retail orders, and sales have doubled each year since. Today, the company goes by Mar Y Sol, and co-designs and co-creates authentic accessories made by hand using natural materials sourced sustainably from Madagascar’s precious forests. The sale of their products enables families to gain economic independence and promotes environmental conservation. This is achieved through fair trade partnerships with artisans who make a living wage through their “trade not aid” business model. For 2012, Mar Y Sol sales are expected to surpass $1 Million, with one-third to one-half of those dollars going back to Madagascar.

As Laurel put it, “Every year that I’ve been to Madagascar, I take loads of resources-magazines, design materials and art supplies and give free workshops to other artisan groups and girls at orphanages so they can have tools to make their products more marketable to tourists. I think there’s a lot of value is in the cross-cultural exchange and information sharing.”

Laurel closed with, “The artisans keep asking for more orders so they can take of themselves!”

Mar Y Sol Artisan in Madagascar

Mar Y Sol Artisan in Madagascar Knitting a Handbag

While the Madagascar Lemurs research project has concluded, it did pave the way to the current Earthwatch Expedition, Carnivores of Madagascar, created to allow volunteers to help monitor Madagascar’s mysterious predator, the fosa, and protect its fragile island habitat.

Finishing Touches
Earthwatch Expeditions open the door for connections that otherwise would have never have been identified. With this blog named “Unlocked,” it has never been more accurate than after hearing this story of a mother influencing daughter (via step-father). We never really know the impact Earthwatch Expeditions have years later, unless volunteers share those stories with us.

If you have a story of how an Earthwatch Expedition has inspired you, we’d love to hear it. Shoot us an email at