Kathi Merritt, an Oregon schoolteacher and veteran of several Earthwatch expeditions, reports that she loved the feeling of working in the shadow of the legendary Moai—“a definite ‘wow!’”—surrounded by Rapa Nui’s stark terrain. “It has a barrenness that’s beautiful,” she says. “There are lava flows and gentle swales of volcanic rock. Occasionally a few of the island’s wild horses would wander past.” As to the work, “your feet get sore,” Merritt says. “You’re hot and sweaty, tramping around the Hiva-Hiva cone area, digging up soil, sifting for carbon flakes and obsidian, taking detailed field notes—the depth of your samples, size of the layers, things like that. Then you fill in that hole and move on to the next site.” Between bouts of labor, volunteers can enjoy swims at Easter Island’s secluded beaches and horseback riding over headlands that afford panoramic views of the Pacific. For incurable archaeology buffs, scores of caves and ceremonial sites unrelated to Stevenson’s project can be explored. But to most voluntourists, the research is their main recreation. Is it that enjoyable? “Yes,” Merritt says, “it’s amazing. I’m going back for more.”
Earthwatch programs in the East African nation of Tanzania. His work had a profound
effect on one of his voluntourists. Former schoolteacher Alvin Helden joined Newmark for an expedition a couple of years ago and was powerfully affected by tropical Africa’s dazzling biodiversity. He became determined “to change the direction of my career.” Helden returned to academia as a researcher in biology and now lectures full-time at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England.
It would be difficult to remain unmoved by the spectacular venue. The sprawling grasslands of Tarangire National Park are an immensely rich biosphere, home to the world’s largest, most diverse population of migratory ungulates—hoofed mammals—such as wildebeests, zebras, giraffes, buffalo, gazelles and eland. Migration is vital to maintaining the populations of these large prey animals, and some species are in serious decline. Newmark’s Saving the Tarangire Migration mission is to determine the “why” of this decline. “Wildebeest herds, for example, have been decimated, on the order of an 88 percent loss since 2001,” Newmark says. “We’re trying to get at the cause.”
Using simple GPS units and digital cameras, volunteers locate herds, marking their geographic coordinates, numbers, and the distribution of their members by age and sex. Forage samples are taken and kill sites are recorded for later analysis. Because each of these creatures has distinctive morphological characteristics—size, coloration, hide patterns and sometimes horn shape—they are exhaustively photographed, and the pictures are entered into a database at the expedition’s base camp. This “photographic capture and recapture” enables Newmark to track the movements of herds and specific individuals from year to year. The whole process is labor-intensive, and he and his colleagues rely heavily on their volunteers, both in the field and at computer terminals in camp.
For the voluntourist, doing valuable fieldwork to prevent what Newmark calls “losing this part of our natural heritage” is immensely satisfying. There’s also a romantic component: consorting with fabulous wild creatures by day and relaxing to a chorus of exotic birds under a starlit African night.
Peter Kershaw’s expeditions to Arctic fringes in northern Canada insert volunteers into some of the most important science surrounding the demonic issue of our time: global warming. The peat-covered zone that circles the globe just below the Arctic is a greenhouse gas time bomb; if this permafrost thaws, it will release vast quantities of methane, impacting the entire planet. Kershaw’s volunteers can work in one of two rugged and spectacular locations: either the vast tundra of northern Manitoba or 1,700 meters above sea level in the challenging alpine wilderness of the Mackenzie Mountains. Teams stay for 11 days, collecting data with ground-penetrating radar, soil coring and live trapping of small mammals. Accommodations are cozy, but hardy winter volunteers sometimes try their hands at building and sleeping in igloos, which offer ideal protection from outside temperatures of –30 and –40 degrees Celsius. Beyond the research adventure, team members find time for beluga whale watching, mountain bike excursions and hikes to absorb the top-of-the-world grandeur of these sites.