Volunteer Expeditions, The Pros and Cons
Photos from my Volunteer Expedition
- Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust
The Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT) is dedicated to enhancing knowledge and understanding of Scotland’s whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans).
In the summer of 2007 I found myself with defunct vacation plans due to the end of a relationship. Not only was I mourning the end of a relationship but I had no place to go, nor no one to go with. What’s a girl to do?
I decided that while I still wanted to go somewhere, I also wanted to be around people. I had heard of volunteer expeditions but had never seriously entertained the thought....until now. After a quick browse of all the volunteer expeditions available I soon realized that this was the perfect opportunity for me to engage in my passion of animal conservation. It was now just a matter of choosing which one. You name the animal, plenty of volunteer expeditions existed: orang-utans, elephants, meerkats, lions, chimpanzees, bears, monkeys, leopards, penguins, dolphins, sharks and whales to name but a few available in virtually every corner of the globe. I changed my mind at least 20 times, but finally decided on a volunteer expedition with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust based in the west coast of Scotland. I was eager to learn more about cetaceans (sea mammals) which living in land locked towns and cities most of my life had not had the opportunity to do so. It promised mammal sightings in the remotest British Isles, how could I resist?
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A VOLUNTEER EXPEDITION
Our volunteer expedition Started in Kyle of Lochalsh located in NW Scotland. There were 5 intrepid volunteers ranging in age from 21 to 55ish and 4 crew members. Everyone was from either England or Scotland, except for me who is Canadian and a German, but he had lived in England for years. We boarded the Silurian, a 20 meter yacht to be our home for the next 10 days. A yacht, it sounded so glamorous! It wasn’t - it was a working research vessel and there were 6 of us sharing one tiny bathroom which we were also responsible for cleaning. It turned out that we would also be taking turns cooking and doing dishes, which turned out to be an interesting experience on a moving boat. I also learned just how important “tea time” is the Brits which was an interesting cultural experience.
It soon became clear that when they said this was a working vacation, they weren’t kidding. We would be assigned a different partner each day with rotating duties every hour for 8 to 10 hours a day. We rotated between:
- being on watch (looking for sightings of whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and basking sharks)
- bird watch (recording the various species and number of sea birds)
-recording sightings in the computer and tracking acoustics
We felt like true marine mammal scientists and were soon easily identifying birds we had previously never heard of. It was long exhausting, sometimes boring work, but sometimes equally exciting and rewarding work. The 10 days went surprisingly fast.
Most days ended with a new found previously unheard of (at least to me) and unexpected hobby: island bagging! There are over 500 islands in the Hebrides and over 100 of these are uninhabited. Each time we landed on one we could check one off the list. I had no idea this could be so much fun, but it soon proved highly addictive and we started trying to convince the captain to change route to reach certain islands. Our first island bagging experience we were rewarded by the ruins of Duntulm Castle and a majestical sunset in the background. Not bad for a first island bagging journey on a volunteer expedition!
On our volunteer expedition we also “bagged” the Flannan Isles, which is a famous island with a lighthouse with the still unsolved mystery of 3 lighthouse keepers who vanished without a trace leaving the meal on the table in 1900. No one to this day knows what happened to them. Reaching the mysterious Flannan Isles we were greeted by the deafening sounds of thousands of a gannet colony, I’ve never seen so many birds in my life, there were thousands! Reaching the lighthouse is a test of perseverance as it involves a hazardous climb up a dilapidated staircase with several missing sections with a raging sea right below. Even more surprising was our greeting from 2 construction workers on this remote isle! Fortunately, they were friendly and no more mysterious disappearances occurred that day! They rewarded our effort by us showing puffin nests perched perilously on top of the windy isle.
On another island bagging excursion, we visited the standing stones of Callanish which are over 4000 years old. Experts believe that the alignment of the stones seems to relate to observations of the moon unlike stone hedge in which the stones are aligned to the sun.
Yet another island bagging adventure led us to Taransay, the island where the television series Castaway was filmed. We all enjoyed pretending that we were “castaways” and enjoyed some well deserved time off from our marine mammal scientist duties. Who said that volunteer expeditions couldn't be fun as well!
Most days we saw no boats or people on our volunteer expedition, I can safely say that on our journey sheep outnumbered people by a considerable amount. I didn’t realize that this type of remoteness existed and it seemed to re-work my internal clock from “go-go-go” to “go-with-the flow”. Docking in the bays of these magical islands for the night was absolute perfection and one of the highlights of the volunteer expedition!
Some days Hebrides wildlife remained scant, i.e. one day we saw 1 minke whale and a seal, and a few birds, that’s it. That makes for a looooooong day! Other days we were rewarded beyond belief with sightings. A few of the Hebrides wildlife highlights:
-3 Risso dolphins and their calves, which are normally shy but much to our delight stayed with our boat for a few minutes while one of the calves put on a somewhat awkward but adorable acrobat display
-3 white-beaked dolphins which are rare so we were so lucky to see them
-30 common dolphins who couldn’t resist swimming in the wake of our boat – their enthusiasm was contagious and our energy rose considerably
-discovering a previously unknown “hotspot” for basking sharks, the world’s 2nd largest fish (harmless to humans), we saw over 30 different individuals in one day – everywhere we looked there were sharks - incredible!
Although it required patience to see these truly incredible sightings, we were rewarded beyond our wildest expectations on our volunteer expedition. These sightings are not something you would see on a regular whale watching tour which is not able to go to remote locations in a single day, so they are truly special and I will cherish them for years to come. They were the definite highlight of this volunteer expedition.
PROS OF VOLUNTEER EXPEDITIONS
-Give back to a cause you believe in – there are volunteer expeditions for any cause you can think of: wildlife conservation, teaching opportunities, working with children and orphanages, education, eradicating poverty, providing fresh drinking water to communities, you name it, there probably exists a volunteer expedition for it
-Meet like-minded people from all walks of life – our volunteer expedition was a diverse group in terms of ages and careers and came from all walks of life, but we got along remarkably well despite the close quarters and had many thought-provoking discussions after dinner related to our common interests: wildlife, conservation, and travel to name but a few
-Travel solo, without travelling solo – you may be going alone, but while on your Volunteer expedition, chances are you’ll never be alone and will meet other like-minded volunteers who are also interested in meeting people with similar interests
-Opportunity to visit remote locations – many volunteer expeditions are in remote locations that are off the beaten tourist track and show you a side of the country that most people will never see or experience
-Educational opportunity – most volunteer expeditions are very educational and spending a week or longer volunteering frequently gives you the opportunity to learn directly from the experts in the field you are volunteering
-Work Experience – volunteer expeditions can be an excellent way of getting hands-on work experience which may assist you in finding a paying job in the field
-Flexibility in durations – if you are somewhat flexible for what you what to do, you can usually find volunteer expeditions ranging from 1 week to several months, so you are likely to find something that works for your timelines
CONS OF VOLUNTEER EXPEDITIONS
-It’s a lot of work – many volunteers think that working may be optional or that they will work for a few hours a day and then have a lot of free time, but that’s usually not the case, volunteers frequently work long hours – not optional on volunteer expeditions
-It’s boring work sometimes – much of the work you are doing on your volunteer expedition may be boring, if you are working with monkeys, chances are you won’t be playing with monkeys all day, but will spend part of your day cleaning enclosures, preparing food...less exciting, but critical tasks.
-Less than desirable living accommodations – accommodations on volunteer expeditions are usually very simple, and shared, bathrooms (if existent) will almost always be shared, and there will likely not be any air conditioning, hot water may also be scarce or non-existent, you will also likely be responsible for doing your own cooking and cleaning
-It can be expensive – many volunteer expeditions require you to pay to participate which can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars to help fund their projects
SHOULD YOU SIGN UP FOR A VOLUNTEER EXPEDITION?
Maybe. It really depends on what you are looking for on a holiday. If you are looking for some rest and relaxation, a volunteer expedition is probably not for you at this time. The same goes if you are looking for some pampering, which is non-existent during a volunteer expedition. However, if you are looking for an unexpected adventure with surprising rewards and don’t mind a little, or a lot of hard work, it is something you should consider.
Another alternative is to consider a real vacation that combines a day of volunteering. for example on this unique Madagascar Ecotour, 13 of the 14 days are a vacation and then you spend a few hours volunteering with local children and another few hours volunteering with lemurs at a sanctuary.
I had the experience of a lifetime, saw places I didn’t know existed, increased my knowledge of cetaceans considerably and had some of the most engaging conversations of my life with the other volunteers and crew, not to mention that the research I participated in will be used to develop a better understanding of cetacean life in the Hebrides – not bad for a 10 day vacation!
I invite you to share your volunteer expedition experience and look forward to hearing about them.
© 2009 Laurel