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My Fabulous, Virtuous Vacation
Why fritter away the hours just lying on a beach somewhere when you can have your fun in the sun -- and help save the planet.

by Jeff Greenwald

Illustration of a diver

There is a species of vacationer who, like me, cannot do what vacationers are meant to do: relax. I am incapable of lying on a beach and sipping an umbrella drink while listening drowsily to reggae hits. I need to be doing something. And given the deteriorating state of our planet, I would prefer it be something useful.

This is not about moral strength. It's simply a case of obstinate curiosity, and a certain kind of incurable restlessness.

For people like me, there exists the "volunteer vacation." Habitat for Humanity is among the best-known organizations to arrange such trips, but there are others whose missions focus on environmental rather than social causes. Global Vision and the Earthwatch Institute, for example, offer motivated travelers the opportunity to transport their curiosity and energy to exotic locales.

"Hands-on participation is key," says Ann Ogilvie, Earthwatch's program manager for earth and marine sciences, over a breakfast of squid salad in Thailand's Koh Chang National Park. An experienced scuba diver, Ogilvie has come to join our volunteer team and to evaluate our work over the next eight days. Our mission marks the first time Earthwatch has sent a group of volunteers to assess the health of Thailand's coral reefs. We'll do our surveys underwater, snorkeling and scuba diving, collecting data on the reef ecosystem. "We're actually engaging people in cutting-edge research," she says.

Ten more teams will continue our work this year, and others are scheduled for 2007. Our goal is to lay the groundwork: get a feel for the equipment, decide which reefs are good candidates for surveys, and develop a sense of what future teams might accomplish. If all goes well, this will become a long-term program. It's inspiring -- if a bit daunting -- to realize we're standing on square one.

Earthwatch, based in Maynard, Massachusetts, has been around since 1971. Its mission, says Ogilvie, is to "support scientific re-search through volunteer contributions -- and not only financially." About 4,000 people sign up each year to collect data everywhere from rainforests to savannahs to coral reefs. Expeditions range in duration from 2 to 21 days, and in cost from $495 to more than $4,000 (and it's tax deductible). Airfare is not included, but most other costs -- like food and accommodations -- are. Some trips, like ours, are for divers. But most cast a broader net, and some, like "Coastal Ecology of the Bahamas," cater specifically to families. There's even a turtle-monitoring trip to Trinidad for teens.

Earthwatch's Thailand trip is a partnership with Reef Check, based in Pacific Palisades, California, a nonprofit organization that has devised a standardized method for gauging the health of the world's endangered coral reefs. The concept is irresistibly simple: Recruit scuba divers all over the world and teach them how to perform relatively simple surveys of dive sites. Since Reef Check's creation in 1997, hundreds of volunteer teams have monitored some 1,500 reefs in more than 60 countries. Once the data are compiled and analyzed, Reef Check advises host countries on reef management and protection.

This particular trip intrigues me for another reason: I learned to dive in Thailand, in 1986. It seems only right to give back to the reefs that inspired my love of the sea. (Okay, maybe I am a moral giant.)

Ogilvie and I, along with another volunteer and two marine scientists -- Reef Check's Europe director, Georg Heiss, and Thailand coordinator, Kim Obermeyer -- wash down our squid salad with instant coffee. We'd hoped to get an early start on our first morning, but we're waiting for the arrival of half a dozen local residents who will be trained to take over the surveys once Reef Check scientists move on to new reefs.

Once everyone is assembled, Heiss and Obermeyer demonstrate the basics of a reef check. First we'll mark our survey line by laying a 100-meter tape along the chosen reef. Breaking into teams of two, we'll perform three surveys: one for fish, one for invertebrates, and one for substrate (the rock, rubble, and live coral that make up the habitat). We're looking for indicator species -- fish and invertebrates that, by their presence or absence, provide clues to a reef's health.

"Too many sea urchins? The area may be [polluted by] sewage, or have a lot of natural nutrients," Heiss says. "Very few butterfly fish? When there's not enough healthy coral, they vanish. No lobster, parrot fish, or grouper? Those are signs of severe overfishing."

Living Green
Open Space

Feel-Good Travel Tips

If you're not sure what kind of trip you're after, search Earthwatch's website for adventures by location, date, group size, or type of trip, from monitoring zebras and rhinos in Africa to tracking marsupials in Australia:

Like the idea of saving the world's coral reefs but don't know how to scuba dive? Coral Cay Conservation Expeditions will teach you, get you certified, then send you out to save the reefs. Coral Cay even offers fundraising tips to help you get your charitable friends to foot the bill. Visit

The travel outfitter i-to-i offers a wide variety of trips for all ages, including many that are just one or two weeks long. How about a week of surfing and saving sea turtles in Costa Rica? Visit

More Living Green

For other tips on environmentally conscious living from OnEarth magazine, visit the Living Green index page.

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Jeff Greenwald is a California-based travel and science writer whose work has appeared in Salon, Wired, and Outside.

Illustration: Craig Larotonda

OnEarth. Fall 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council