Vacations That Nurture Your Inner Scientist

Why loll on a beach when you can help dig, observe, collect, and photograph?

Virginia veterinarian Gene Rowe glows when he describes a winter trip to study the feeding habits of Yellowstone's elk herd and their impact on aspen trees. Susan Gartner, a former National Institutes of Health stroke specialist, brims with tales of tracking Kentucky warblers in Panama's rainforest to record their migration patterns. And Joan Thuebel, an ex-AT&T personnel director, is effusive when recounting her fieldwork with lemurs in Madagascar.

The three aren't field scientists. They are vacationers who chose to spend their holidays working on scientific projects sponsored by Earthwatch--and pay for the privilege. A growing number of such volunteer vacationers are helping to make some scientific projects possible. Among them: a Mayan dig in Belize sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America and a project working to conserve China's Mai Po wetlands, run by the University Research Expeditions Program of the University of California at Davis.

Based in Maynard, Mass., Earthwatch is a pioneer in using paying volunteers to help field researchers and has been organizing such teams since 1973. Volunteers provide not only manpower but funding for scientific endeavors. The temporary scientists ante up $850 to $4,000, plus airfare, for expeditions lasting from a week to a month. Earthwatch also will accept stock in lieu of cash to cover travelers' expenses. You generally can deduct the fees from taxes as expenses incurred while volunteering. Through these fees, Earthwatch provided $3.7 million in field grants to 250 scientists last year. "Scientists come to us with good ideas, and we take those ideas public by finding people who will invest not only money but their time," says founder Brian Rosborough.

For some projects, Earthwatch forms partnerships with other research institutes, including the Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation, the Harvard and Tufts University veterinary schools, and Conservation International. Unlike museum tours, in which travelers attend scholarly lectures, these expeditions require sweat equity. Participants dig, hike, observe, collect, collate, photograph, and interview as part of the scientists' field teams. "This is peer-reviewed scientific research," says Earthwatch communications director Ed Wilson. And while amateur scientists may find themselves in places that are among the most beautiful on the planet, their accommodations are often Peace Corps rustic--tented camps or lodges lit by battery-powered generators. "Not having any heat in Nepal was a bit of a challenge," says Gayle Bauer, 74, a Washington (D.C.) photo archivist who has been on 13 expeditions since 1974. But the cold wasn't a problem, says Bauer: "The goals of the project, camaraderie with fellow team members, and the pleasure of making a contribution toward research were the major things, and we were always aware of that."

Expedition recruits range from teenagers to octogenarians. No specific skills are required; the research scientist will teach you what you need to know and will try to incorporate your talents. Besides, "you don't need a PhD to look at your watch and say the monkey has been sleeping for 10 minutes," says Princeton primatologist Alison Jolly. She began using Earthwatch volunteers in 1983 to study the feeding habits of lemurs in Madagascar and has led 15 such teams since.

If you're interested in doing fieldwork during your vacation, call the organizations or check their Web sites for expedition descriptions and dates (table). Earthwatch also offers a catalog that details projects, accommodations, likely food quality, and required fitness levels. After you've narrowed your choices, speak to an expedition coordinator about previous projects in the area. More detailed briefings provide such information as project goals, methodology, and the researcher's background. And talk to former expedition members. Remember that you will be taking on a lot of risks--from exposure to disease to suffering an injury. Earthwatch requires comprehensive health forms signed by volunteers and their physicians giving a medical history, health status, and vaccinations. Participants must also document that they have health insurance and sign liability waivers. Earthwatch strongly urges volunteers to take out travel, evacuation, and accident insurance. Project directors are expected to set up emergency procedures in advance, and volunteers get detailed safety briefings at the launch of every team. Earthwatch contracts with International SOS ( in Philadelphia, which arranges for airlifts in medical emergencies. Earthwatch spokeswoman Blue Magruder says she knows of only three since she joined in June, 1977.

The first Earthwatch expeditions set out in 1973 to monitor an eclipse in Canada and a dormant ancient volcano in Ethiopia. Two years later, Harvard astronomer Donald Menzel ventured deep into the Sahara with volunteers to observe a seven-minute solar eclipse over North Africa. Then, in 1974, an eight-person team was rapidly assembled to observe an erupting volcano in Iceland. "We began in rocks and stars, where amateurs couldn't hurt anything," says Rosborough. Now it would be hard to imagine some Earthwatch projects getting done without paying amateurs. "How else could you monitor a seven-mile Costa Rican beach at night to document sea turtle nesting behavior?" asks Magruder.

Volunteers, meanwhile, say the camaraderie that comes from working under rough conditions becomes habit-forming. Rowe, the Virginia vet, was bitten by the adventure bug in the early 1980s. Now in his early 70s, Rowe has 55 Earthwatch expeditions under his belt, including a recent mission to photograph shipwrecks off Bermuda.

For many participants, an expedition is a life-changing experience. Lynn Dyer, a former Peat Marwick consultant, returned from Africa to join the Peace Corps, then attend graduate school in anthropology. Dyer now works in an archaeological center in remote Cortez, Colo. Not everyone is as deeply affected by this form of tourism. But even one experience can teach you a lot about the planet--and about yourself.

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