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If you’ve ever wanted to live out your childhood dream of being a marine biologist or even an archaeologist, try booking a trip with a research bent: it’s easier than you think.

There were six of us in the boat. I sat at the ready, my feet in fins hanging over the side, my mask and snorkel already on. A nurse shark flicked by, which I didn’t see, and then a small barracuda, which I did, right at the edge of the mangroves.

“Go for it, go for it, go for it!” said Annabelle Brooks, the scientist in charge of our expedition, as I dropped myself into the shallow water at the mouth of Starve Creek, a small tidal inlet in the Bahamas. The green sea turtle we had been following was right in front of my face as soon I got in, but slipped away while I was orienting myself. My job was to scoop it up so we could help tag, weigh, and measure it before returning it to the bay. “He got it!” the people in the boat yelled.  “Oh, no!” they cried as they saw the turtle instead swim out of reach.

Volunteers in the Bahamas out to sea

The water was too shallow to swim properly, so I scrambled after it as best I could, using the sandy bottom of the creek below me like a ladder to pull myself along, trying to get above the turtle instead of behind it. I risked a peek over my shoulder to make sure that the spotter standing up in the bow of the boat could still see us through a stand of aquatic trees. Finally I got my hands under its front flippers, just like we’d been trained the day before. Jessica Rudd, the spotter and Brooks’s research assistant, got out of the boat to help me lift it—at 54 pounds it turned out to be the biggest turtle our group would catch all week.

Connecting travelers to research opportunities 

On our nine-day trip, we were trained to tag green sea turtles safely; the species is endangered as a result of poaching and climate change. Earthwatch Institute, the nonprofit headquartered in Boston leading the excursion, matches travelers with conservation-focused research projects around the world. Among the nearly 50 different trips it currently offers are surveying manta rays in Peru, observing rhinos in South Africa, and excavating archaeological sites in Italy, Cambodia, Portugal, or Colorado.

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“The wonderful thing about Earthwatch is you don’t need any scientific background. You can just have an interest in science, or maybe you just love penguins or butterflies.”

Each proposed project submitted to the institute is reviewed by three independent experts to ensure scientific rigor and vetted by Earthwatch for safety and potential appeal. Most trips last a week to 10 days and range in activity level from easy to strenuous.

“The wonderful thing about Earthwatch is you don’t need any scientific background. You can just have an interest in science, or maybe you just love penguins or butterflies or whatever it is,” says Alix Morris, Earthwatch’s director of communications.

The seven people in our group included a history teacher, a writer, two college students, an attorney and her retired husband, and me. Three of them had been on Earthwatch expeditions before, and another had been to Costa Rica to study hatchlings with the Sea Turtle Conservancy. For me, the trip was an opportunity to combine my love of snorkeling with a growing interest in ecology and a chance to get to know some interesting people, too.

Volunteers with Earthwatch Institute measure sea turtles.

We stayed in group dorms on Eleuthera Island at the Cape Eleuthera Island School, which began as a semester program for visiting high school students but has expanded to include an array of education and outreach initiatives. A wind turbine towered over the cluster of buildings, which were fitted with solar panels. The campus was split by a lagoon; it teemed with fish and silver-dollar-sized jellyfish that lay on their backs, pulsating and soaking up sunbeams through the water.

Making an impact on the Earth—and the people

Working with Earthwatch volunteers helps the school’s mission to spread awareness, Brooks said. About sea turtles, yes, but also about sustainable living more generally. 

“Everything doesn’t have to take place here,” she said. “We want people to come here and learn, and then go back home and start making changes where they are as well and have this ripple effect of knowledge going out.”

Posters in every bathroom reminded us to take navy-style showers—getting wet, shutting the water off to soap up, and then quickly rinsing off—since rain collected in a cistern provided all of the fresh water.  In our downtime, Brooks and Rudd served as tour guides as well as scientists, taking us to snorkeling spots, caves, and the annual conch festival in the nearby settlement of Rock Sound.

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Volunteers release measured sea turtles.

According to Brooks, who has been at the Island School since 2005, the green sea turtle research started as a school project around seven years ago and is in its fifth year of support from Earthwatch. The Earthwatch funding has helped the school invest in equipment and manpower, enabling the group to study the turtles’ population, movement, and eating habits over an extended time. Visitors have come to help with the turtles from as far as Japan, Singapore, and Croatia and have ranged from teenagers to a woman in her 80s.

Lessons to bring home

As Brooks succinctly put it, “If you can have people have fun at the same time as doing some good in the world, then why not?”

Since I’ve gotten back, I feel like I know a little more about sea turtles—but am also more invested in sustainable solutions to problems like plastic use. (86 percent of all turtle species and nearly 300 species of marine life have been harmed by plastic pollution.) My taking navy showers at home only lasted about three days, but now I’m much more conscious of how much water I use.

“It was sort of surreal, I didn’t really believe I was there,” Holly O’Neal, 20, told me about holding a turtle. “Actually seeing it breathe, and its eyes, and just the texture of its skin made me realize I was there. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually touch a wild animal and have it in your hands. It’s incredible.”

For more information about Earthwatch Institute and the programs it supports, visit its website. Trip prices average $2,700, including room and board.

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