BROWSING THROUGH NEWSPAPER TRAVEL SUPPLEMENTS, youll see a lot more than features on holidays with a simple sun and beach theme. As often as not, space will be dedicated to some form of marine eco-tourism - saving the world is big business, and divers are a large target audience.
Whether its for a gap year, career break or simply a two-week holiday, there are plenty of organisations that will gladly part you from a sizeable amount of money in exchange for the opportunity to make the world a better place.
During my travels, I have heard quite a few horror stories about eco-trips in which divers have taken part.
Some had paid a lot of cash to be part of a research project to establish a marine park or some other such worthy cause, only to find later that little of their fee ever seemed to reach the project.
Worse still, they had found that no one in the local community had asked for the research or seemed to need them to be there. Their dream trip to make a difference had ended up being a monumental waste of time.
Holidays and trips labelled as eco-tourism have been spurred on by consumer demand for meaningful travel concepts, and by the recent popularity of university gap-year and career breaks. (An astonishing number of hopefuls contact every year in the hope of paying for their eco-diving experiences through the writing of articles for which it has no space.)
Involvement in a research project seems a popular choice for eco-tourists but the label research is easy to apply to any kind of information-gathering exercise.
The important questions are these: who proposed the research in the first place, what will be the outcome of the project and who will benefit
A search on the Internet for diving-related eco-trips turns up hundreds of pages. So, to make sense of the opportunities available, I decided to send the Mystery Divers imaginary daughter on an eco-expedition for the start of her gap year.
To ensure some level of consistency, I based my investigation on the following standards: clarity of purpose; clear identification of sponsor; impact on the community; academic / scientific support; cost / breakdown of where the money goes, and whether any subsequent publications were available in the public domain.
So that I could also gauge what each organisation believed to be important, I asked the question: What makes your trips better than others I started with Coral Cay Conservation (CCC), an organisation that is currently celebrating its 20th birthday and well known in the diving community. Its website is incredibly informative and, on the homepage, the purpose behind the organisation is stated in a very specific mission statement.
Delve into the rest of the site and it becomes clear that CCC takes pride in what it achieves. Several pages are devoted to the scientific methodology behind the volunteer surveys, as well as a bibliography detailing the reports, conference papers, published work and postgraduate theses that have been a direct result of work conducted through its expeditions.
Its all very impressive, especially as many of the reports can be downloaded from the site. The purpose behind all the expeditions is also very detailed. In Honduras, for example, the expedition is working with local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and a university to achieve well-defined project aims.
A breakdown of financial accounts is also available and, as some reassurance that the money is well spent, there is an explanation of how CCC is a non-governmental, not-for-profit limited company.
Any profits are either recycled into developing expedition sites or donated to the CCC Trust, a UK-registered charity. I rang and spoke to Tanya. She explained how the various options available in terms of time and destination could suit my daughters needs and went on to recommend staying for several weeks: It will be more beneficial, as the minimum of two weeks is spent carrying out diver and scientific training.
I finished by asking: Why CCC
We work in partnership with local communities at their invitation to address their needsÃƒâ€° explained Tanya. We also have the strength of the science behind what we achieve. For example, all our project scientists have to have a relevant postgraduate qualification.
I was impressed with Tanyas focus on the importance of partnership, outcomes for the community and scientific rigour.
Global Vision International (GVI) appeared to be a similar set-up to CCC, though its homepage didnt have the same punch in terms of a mission statement or purpose. Instead, it seemed to focus initially on the individual and what GVI could do to offer a unique travel experience.
I did find a mission statement on one of its other pages where the detail of how it would promote the advancement of sustainable development was made clearer, though I believe the purpose and mission should come before individual needs.
Unlike CCCs approach of establishing and maintaining expeditions, GVI seems to match volunteers with other NGOs and charities such as Rainforest Concern and The Endangered Wildlife Trust.
I could find no sign on the website of the science behind the projects, financial accounts or any outcomes in respect of publications, and rang Chris at GVI to see if he could help. He told me how, unlike CCC expeditions, GVI did not run trips as short as two weeks. Its approach appears to guarantee that volunteers carry out some research by stipulating that they stay in five-week blocks.
The first two weeks of any trip involve PADI Advanced and science training, which can be pretty exhaustive, and its only in weeks three to ten that you start any survey work, said Chris.
He explained what a ten-week programme would involve, with a strong emphasis on what was in it for the individual - how my daughter would get involved in turtle beach patrols and plankton-sampling, for example. Ten weeks would cost about £2695 as opposed to CCCs £2400.
And where would all that money go Chris provided an approximation of how at least 40-50% went to the project, but wasnt clear about the remainder. There had been no mention of outcomes, or how any research would be published.
When I asked Chris, he said there was an annual conference, but he wasnt aware of how results were published.
He referred me to Steve, who apparently knew more about this aspect of GVIs work. Were slightly different to other groups, he told me.
We collect data and give it to local groups so that they can produce reports. Effectively we provide personnel and equipment and do research for them, but we dont actually produce anything other than an annual report.
I asked about an expedition to the Seychelles, where GVI had a base in support of two NGOs. Steve told me that GVI was helping to develop science on a regional basis. as until now every island has had its own NGO.
This has meant differing methodologies, and as a result the data couldnt be compared. Its an example of what happens in the real world.
I asked Steve for the names of the NGOs being supported, and one name he provided was the Marine Conservation Society Seychelles (MCSS). When I looked it up online, Chris comments about observing turtles and carrying out plankton-surveys made sense - the MCSS provides an explanation of how plankton has a direct effect on the whale shark population.
The MCSS is trying to establish baseline data on these creatures to influence local policy on the management of the marine environment. After some digging, I did manage to establish that the research carried out by volunteers could make a difference.
I went back to Chris and asked him why I should choose GVI. If your daughter does a 10-week programme, she can apply for a career opportunity to become an intern. Theres a good network out there and a support base if anything goes wrong, plus, the reserve where shell be is breathtaking!
No mention of how she would play a part in improving the environment, or develop any life-long skills.
Im sure that GVI volunteers carry out good work that does make a difference, but in my opinion the organisation does not stress the importance of specific community outcomes enough, perhaps because it is essentially a conduit for volunteers and equipment.
My only concern would be about the validity of the projects it supports. There is an argument for research leading to effective policy as opposed to simply adding to a body of knowledge. If I were to spend a substantial amount on a working holiday, I would want to see how that work would make a difference.
I was impressed by Steves honesty when I quizzed him about costs and how they are broken down. He made it clear that GVI is a limited company and not a charity, though part of its work is to maintain a charitable trust.
So, while on the surface it appears like CCC, it operates differently. Published results on its website or elsewhere would instil confidence in the value of its work.
The last of the big organisations I wanted to look at was Frontier. Its website starts by clearly stating its mission / purpose, which focuses on natural resource management and alleviation of poverty. Other pages explain more about the work of this organisation, which has been around for 15 years.
Frontier is the banner for the Society for Environmental Exploration, a non-profit NGO. I was impressed by the detail on its website, with information about its affiliation with various universities, institutes and governmental ministries leading on to information about the expeditions managed by Frontier. As the website offers so much information, I decided to focus on a marine conservation project in Tanzania and Madagascar, where I found all the facts I would need to make an informed decision, even down to candid day in the life diary entries. I was also impressed by the qualifications and experience of the expedition staff.
Another part of the website holds a list of publications, the result of Frontier expeditions. From technical reports to scientific journal contributions, it looked impressive.
Danielle at Frontier explained how my daughter could join it for 10 weeks in either Tanzania or Madagascar (the cost would be £2500) and said her contribution would help locals get a better livelihood through research work that has real outcomes.
She said that universities and governments approach Frontier for assistance, so the work it does will affect policy, and that my daughter would have the opportunity to develop valuable life-skills and a BTEC qualification from her work in the field.
Danielle was the only person to whom I spoke who emphasised the need for volunteers to reach a certain standard in their ability to carry out data-collection and analysis. These are the standards required for the BTEC and to ensure that the research is credible, she said.
Why should I choose Frontier A strong point is the BTEC, but its also an opportunity to give something back through sound long-term research. Unlike other organisations, its not a two-week trip where we show people what to do and they have a bit of fun.
Although for some people this is fine, the good thing is that theres something for everyone out there.
I was impressed with Frontier, so much so that when I told Danielle I wished I were 18 again to go on an expedition, I meant it. Theres no age barrier - whats stopping you she replied encouragingly.
So far I had focused on 10-week expeditions, but as Danielle had mentioned shorter two-week eco-trips, I decided to change my focus.
A small company called Scubaworld Safaris caught my eye with a two-week whale shark expedition to Utila in the Bay Islands of Honduras. According to its website, the company aimed to promote expeditions to more unusual destinations where divers can increase their knowledge of the marine environment and so help protect this valuable ecosystem.I wasnt convinced that simply increasing your knowledge of the marine environment would lead to it being protected.
The whale shark project promised to be Utilas largest scientific research project to find out more about whale sharks. There was also the promise of diving with the big fish, tagging and collecting DNA samples from the whale sharks and all in conjunction with scientists and marine biologists from around the world. While the GVI Seychelles whale shark project had the support of local NGOs, this project appeared to have no such links.
I called Paul Shepherd, the founder of the company. The trip was full but he told me how the owners of the Deep Blue Resort in Utila had established the project, and that it was they who bring in the scientists. He recommended that I call the resort and see if it had any space on other weeks.
I was interested in any other research-based trips Scubaworld Safaris could offer. Paul was refreshingly candid. These arent necessarily scientific expeditions, mine are mostly photo trips, but I do try to get a scientific edge to them. To get specialists in is very difficult, as they often cancel. I like to think of these trips as holidays with a little bit extra.
Paul followed up my call by finding a suitable trip for us on which we could holiday and learn something at the same time. For what he professed to offer, his service was first class.
With the idea that these two-week trips might be no more than holidays with a scientific edge I approached Utilas Deep Blue Resort and spoke to Steve. He was wildly excited about the whole project and promised a long list of prominent scientists who I could help carry out their essential research.
He also explained the logistics of how the weeks would be run. Two boats and a spotter plane would go out looking for the whale sharks and, once found, I would have the chance to swim with them. I would be able to help with describing individual whale sharks and so add to what was known about them.
The scientists would take the chance to tag the creatures to find out more about their migratory habits. This, combined with the option to go diving, listen to talks from scientists and hang out in their luxurious resort all sounded very appealing.
I dug deeper into the Deep Blue Resort and its whale shark project. It transpires that Deep Blue has teamed up with a commercial organisation called Absolute Adventures. Its activities include great white shark cage-diving off the island of Guadalupe in Mexican waters, where it allows scientists to join in to carry out their research while providing a point of interest for the paying customers - a win-win situation.
Where the data goes and how it gets used is less clear. Researchers are notorious for guarding any data until it is published. So while this project may add to a growing body of knowledge, its utility value is questionable.
Then again, it does sound like fun, and if a concept driven by commercial as well as altruistic ideals makes the world a better place, wheres the argument
I came across another whale shark research project in Utila, this time run by the Shark Research Institute (SRI) in New Jersey. This non-profit organisation aims to produce baseline data though satellite tagging and DNA sampling in order to influence governments across the world to save this giant of the sea.
I spoke to Marie from the SRI. Weve just come back from Utila, where we tagged another nine sharks, she said. Our research there has been running for several years and in 1999 we asked the Honduras government for protection for the whale shark, which was granted based on the data we had accumulated so far. Were strong conservationists and were effective because what we do is solid scientifically.
Could she support this We have Dr Leonard Compagno at the institute. Hes a leading figure in shark research and we always publish our results. Im about to present two papers in Australia.
I checked the credibility of the names mentioned as well as SRIs executive council. It turned out to be a whos who of shark research. The president of the council is celebrated underwater photographer Stan Waterman and Dr Leonard Compagno is incredibly well published, one journal even describing him as the elasmobranch taxonomy guru.
As the SRI also allows volunteers to join its research in the field, I have a feeling that the whale shark community in Utila is about to become quite famous. The sharks will find themselves the legitimate targets of tagging scientists and eco-tourists all working towards a vaguely similar aim. At least theyre not being hauled out of the water by giant factory-fishing vessels.
Another organisation caught my eye as I searched through cyberspace for eco-opportunities. Ecovolunteers, a Dutch-based company, specialises in offering a range of marine- and land-based eco-holidays to those who want to see and feel the enormous work, the frustrations, the difficulties and the problems involved in conservation, as opposed to just being a tourist who consumes the results of conservation.
A bottlenose dolphin project in Sardinia caught my eye. My daughter would love it, especially as in any spare time she would have the option of diving. The briefing for the trip came as a downloadable document containing all the information you could possibly need to make an informed decision. Included were the projects aims, who runs it, how the data will be used, and the logistics.
I was also impressed by the realistic advice that would ensure that eco-volunteers were under no illusions that their efforts, as well as helping the research staff both financially and practically, could also involve some less than attractive duties, such as cleaning and distributing leaflets to tourists.
The website appeared international in its approach, with any enquiries made online sent to your local Ecovolunteer agent. In the case of the UK, this turned out to be Wildwings / WildOceans, a bird- and whale-watching tour company. I called and spoke to Rose.
Essentially Ecovolunteers is a conduit for conservation projects. Were the UK booking agents, we can help you with any information you need and if there is anything I dont know, Ill find an answer for you. Her attitude was spot-on; upfront about what the organisation hopes to achieve, as well as being informative on essential advice such as language differences. I was quoted £489 for two weeks in the low season for the bottlenose dolphin project, not including airfare and food.
This seemed a little steep until I found a section on the website which explained how the costs were broken down: at least 77% goes to the conservation project; 3% to maintenance of the Ecovolunteers website; 10% for the development of the Ecovolunteers programme and 10% as a fee to the booking agent. This all seemed appropriate, and I was impressed. As the website says: Dont be an Ecotourist ... join us, be an Ecovolunteer!
The world of eco-tourism is growing, but the direction in which its going depends on the organisations within it and the needs of individual travellers. So does any of it make a difference
I asked this of a volunteer who had spent six weeks on a marine project. Whether we made an impact on a global level, I dont know. I guess you just have to remember the old every one drop of water casts out ripples adage.
Another volunteer described how life hasnt been quite the same since. I will always have the wonderful memories and knowledge that I gained from the experience, and if I were rich, Id go again tomorrow.