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.

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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.

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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.

Krasnow-4_Fieldwork

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.

intertidal-samplers

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.

rocky-beach

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.

Treasure

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.

Attaching-holder-for-weighing

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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 Photscan 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.

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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

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Oftentimes, the narrative about climate change is one of dramatically changing weather patterns and temperatures. This article tells another story. Featured on BBC.com, 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 lastminute.com 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 info@earthwatch.org.