Earthwatch volunteer, Tracey Watts, swaps her office job for two weeks in the Bahamas as she set sail for science.
I recently returned from a couple of weeks in the Bahamas where I spent most of my time on the water in a small rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) looking for dolphins and whales. How did I score that? I was a volunteer for Earthwatch on their Dolphins & Whales of Abaco Island expedition.
In real life, I am a 37 year old chartered accountant and an animal lover. I have always donated to animal based charities and last year I decided to take it a step further and get actively involved in animal conservation.
During my annual overseas holiday, I volunteered at the Giant Panda Centre in China. This year, I decided I wanted to help dolphins. As a bonus, the project was based in the Bahamas, so it didn't take much to convince me to sign up!
In preparation for my trip, I read all the recommended readings and was a bit surprised to find there is very little known about dolphins and whales. We've all grown up seeing them in aquariums or places like Sea World, but projects like this are essential to gather information to support their conservation.
The project has been running since 1991 and the lead Earthwatch scientists, Diane Claridge and Charlotte Dunn, are both experts in their field. They live in a great house on the beach in a little community called Sandy Point on Abaco Island. This became our home for the duration of our project.
The other volunteers were a mixed bunch mostly from the US (since it is very close to the Bahamas that was expected), but there were also people from Barbados, Panama and Canada as well as me, from Australia.
We had quite a large group so we were divided into two teams which took turns at spending the day out on the boat or in the office.
Boat days were of course our favourite. Basically, we loaded up the RHIB with cameras, food, water and snorkel gear and headed out for a day on the water searching for dolphins and whales.
Our first job was to go to nearby Rocky Point to drop a hydrophone into the water in an area regularly visited by bottlenose dolphins. The hydrophone records sounds underwater for 1.5 minutes then waits 1.5 minutes before recording again. This continues for 24 hours. We placed the hydrophone on the sea bottom which was quite shallow at around 3.5 metres.
Another job was to record sea and weather conditions in the RHIB logbook every half an hour, such as wave height, cloud cover, depth, wind direction, longitude and latitude.
We also were constantly looking for fins or frigate birds who are often flying above dolphins and we were lucky enough to find dolphins on every boat day and on our last we found two different groups.
Once sighted, we took photos of their fins. Each dolphin's fin is unique and can be used like a finger print to identify them.
We also recorded the dolphins behaviour every 15 minutes including group cohesion, whether they were resting, playing or feeding, group numbers and how many adults, juveniles and calves.
Di and Charlotte were able to pick out most of the dolphins from memory, and after a couple of days, we could too. We would spend up to an hour observing, then head off and leave them to it.
After about four hours staring at the ocean, willing it to produce a fin, it was time to give our eyes and minds a break, so we’d drop anchor for lunch and a bit of a swim or snorkel.
The second half of the day was the same as the first and finished with picking up the hydrophone that had been left the day before.
Every boat day was a bit different and every boat day was unreal! We never tired of the thrill of hanging out with the dolphins and observing them only metres away from us.
Our alternate day was spent in the office where we had three main jobs. Firstly, we put the logbook entries from the boat days into the computer. Secondly, we listened to the hydrophone recordings and logged what sounds we could hear such as fish feeding, dolphin whistles or whale clicks.
Thirdly, we identified the fin photographs by trying to match the shots taken to the database of fins previously ID’d. While these jobs don’t sound as exciting as going out on the boat, they really did give us some great knowledge of the research and helped us see how what we were doing was going to help.
We also had some bad weather days which meant we couldn't go out on the boat. As the other team was already in the office, we occupied ourselves by doing beach and water clean ups and helping at the Sandy Point Environmental Camp which is run for the local kids to teach them the importance of caring for the environment and the local flora and fauna.
We had regular presentations put on by Di, Charlotte and other visiting PhD students which were extremely informative. We also had time to swim, socialize, read, relax and go kayaking.
We took turns at cooking up a storm for dinner and we all danced the night away a few times too!
It’s hard to do it all justice in writing. Seeing dolphins in the wild is just awesome. Pulling up next to a deserted sand island and swimming in the clearest water ever, is as close to a perfect holiday as it can get AND we were doing something to help animal conservation at the same time!
Whenever I return from an overseas trip and tell my travel stories, people say "You’re so lucky!" And I am lucky, thats for sure, but I make my own luck and you can too.
Volunteering is something that everyone can do. It doesn't have to be as far away as the Bahamas. Earthwatch has projects all over the world for varying durations including just a day in Sydney.
I would highly recommend everyone get out there and do their bit – I guarantee you’ll not only enjoy yourself, you'll have a unique experience, meet great people, learn a lot and you'll feel good too!
- Tracey Watts, Earthwatch volunteer