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Volunteer Expeditions, The Pros and Cons

Updated on May 22, 2019

Photos from my Volunteer Expedition

Our boat, guess which one is ours - hint it's not the big one, this is a volunteer expedition after all!
Our boat, guess which one is ours - hint it's not the big one, this is a volunteer expedition after all!
The volunteer expedition started off from Kyle of Lochalsh, Scotland with the island of Skye in the background.
The volunteer expedition started off from Kyle of Lochalsh, Scotland with the island of Skye in the background.
Our trip route. On the right is mainland Scotland, top left is the Isle of Lewis. To the far left is the Flannan isles with the lighthouse - quite remote!
Our trip route. On the right is mainland Scotland, top left is the Isle of Lewis. To the far left is the Flannan isles with the lighthouse - quite remote!
Mother dolphin and her calf.
Mother dolphin and her calf.
A birds eye view from the island of Scarpe.  Note how warm the water looks but it was freezing.  That's our boat in the foreground.  It was so nice to stretch our legs.
A birds eye view from the island of Scarpe. Note how warm the water looks but it was freezing. That's our boat in the foreground. It was so nice to stretch our legs.
Lighthouse at the Flannan Isles, and the location of the unsolved mystery of the 3 lighthouse keepers who mysteriously vanished in the early 1900s.
Lighthouse at the Flannan Isles, and the location of the unsolved mystery of the 3 lighthouse keepers who mysteriously vanished in the early 1900s.
The largest colony of birds I've ever seen!  Literally 1000s of gannets at Flannan Isle.
The largest colony of birds I've ever seen! Literally 1000s of gannets at Flannan Isle.
A view of the Flannan Isle lighthouse as we approach it.
A view of the Flannan Isle lighthouse as we approach it.
When the sea was rough, the work didn't stop, we simply harnessed ourselves to the boat to avoid being thrown overboard - took a bit of getting used to.
When the sea was rough, the work didn't stop, we simply harnessed ourselves to the boat to avoid being thrown overboard - took a bit of getting used to.
Basking shark heading straight for our boat.  Even though they are the 2nd largest shark in the world, they are harmless to people and feed on plankton.
Basking shark heading straight for our boat. Even though they are the 2nd largest shark in the world, they are harmless to people and feed on plankton.
Standing stones of Callanish on the Isle of Lewis which are over 4000 years old.
Standing stones of Callanish on the Isle of Lewis which are over 4000 years old.
A group of bottlenose dolphins that we saw really close to land in a harbour of sorts.
A group of bottlenose dolphins that we saw really close to land in a harbour of sorts.
Minke whale sightings were short,usually they disappeared after a few seconds.
Minke whale sightings were short,usually they disappeared after a few seconds.
The islands appeared majestical peering out through the fog.
The islands appeared majestical peering out through the fog.
The crew hard at work on our volunteer expedition.
The crew hard at work on our volunteer expedition.

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.

ISLAND BAGGING

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!

HEBRIDES WILDLIFE

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

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    • profile image

      Robbooker Voluntary Organization 

      7 years ago

      To Whom it may concern,

      My name is Richmond Amoakoh , Director and Programs

      manager of RVO-Ghana.

      RVO-Ghana

      is

      for those who are looking for a way to volunteer abroad, Give a

      helping hand,learn about a new culture, and work within a creative

      enthusiastic team.

      R.V.O-Ghana is one of

      the fastest growing volunteer organization in

      Ghana. We are dedicated to providing meaningful and affordable

      volunteer projects across the length and breath of Ghana,

      Tailoring

      programmes

      for individuals,school groups, clubs, and organizations

      from

      worldwide.Today

      we don’t just travel for sightseeing but to give a

      helping hand to the

      vulnerable and marginalized

      communities through a

      meaningful

      program and to give those as volunteers a life changing

      experience.Â

      Below  are few of the programs offered by

      the RVO-Ghana :

      * Orphanage work (live and work with orphans)

      * Community Work and Tours

      * Teach bsic English

      language, Maths, Science, IT and Environmental sanitation.

      * Healthcare and Health

      education in Ghana.

      * Community

      Development Project

      * HIV/AIDS campaign/education.

      * Construction Project (Construction of a new RVO Orphanage Home)

      * Conservation Project

      * International WorkcampsÂ

      We

      are currently looking for partner organisations / companies to work

      with in Ghana and after visiting your website ,we have find it

      interesting to work with you in Ghana.

      About AccommodationÂ

      The

      accommodation type we arrange for volunteers is the family stay type.

      This means that volunteers stay with a family as their host. Staying

      with a host family is very ideal and cost saving for both the volunteer

      and RVO-Ghana. The volunteer gets to experience the culture closely and

      better whilst RVO-Ghana also comfortably manages the security and

      safety of the volunteer and properties. In a room, each volunteer has to

      his/her own, a bed, pillow and bedspread. In the home of the host

      family, volunteers have access to toilet and bath, kitchen, lounge,

      television, radio, electricity, water, dinning table and table sets. We

      pick families with children in

      the house. There are some places of work and residence without

      electricity and running water so you may do without television, and the

      likes. However the volunteer's safe health is well guided. The cost of

      accommodation is part of the total program fee. In most cases, it's one

      volunteer to one room. Occasionally, there may be two volunteers to one

      room. Matching volunteers to host families and pairing volunteers in a

      room is done by picking needed information from the volunteers. The

      host families are consistently screened with their information updated

      on regular basis to make sure they meet our standards and also match to

      volunteers we send over to them.Â

      About the foodÂ

      Host

      families are responsible for providing the volunteer breakfast, lunch

      and dinner all days. In some instances, due to the distance between

      project site and home, volunteers go along with a lunch pack. The foods

      served are mainly continental dishes comprising rice, chicken, beef,

      tea, coffee, bread, eggs, soup, potato, oaths, fruits, fish, etc. local

      foods are

      served alongside and are made mainly from the above, tubers, beans

      and/or maize. We have to mention that it is very common for a volunteer

      to find a familiar dish in a restaurant in the cities.Â

      Drinking WaterÂ

      Drinking water for

      our volunteers is an issue we take seriously and make sure that

      volunteers drink well treated water. Some companies are into the

      manufacture of such water that are well treated and hygienically

      bottled or bagged.Â

      LaundryÂ

      Generally,

      your host brother, sister or mother assist you with your laundry but it

      is not an obligation, learn to wash your clothing’s with your hands in

      several buckets, enjoy the sun drying your clothes and smell the

      African aroma in your clothesÂ

      General livingÂ

      You might find yourself washing clothes with

      your hands, cooking with a firewood and discussing politics or religion

      behind candlelight. It is a unique opportunity to become deeply

      immersed in Ghanaian culture. Stay in hostels and dormitories are

      organized for volunteers who so desire but in groups of not less than

      six working on similar project(s). After you have compared figures and

      services with other program offered by other companies /organizations,

      speaking with past volunteers, you shall come to conclusion that, our

      services /programs are far better, well packaged, organised and

      affordable for volunteers. Unlike others, there are no extra fees to be

      paid upon arrival in Ghana. A volunteer does not end up spending beyond

      what He/She has budgeted for after signing up with us and arriving in

      the country. This is a relief and welcoming news for many volunteers.

      Comparatively, you eventually spend less in Ghana on our program.

      Accommodation

      and feeding is pre-arranged for all volunteers by R.V.O. The cost of

      accommodation and feeding are part of the total program fee to be paid.Â

      The accommodation type

      arranged for volunteers are the family stays /home stay type.Â

      This

      means that volunteers stay with a family as their host. The families

      offer volunteers their own private room in the family house, and

      provide breakfast, lunch and dinner all days for the volunteers. In

      some instances, due to the distance between project site and home,

      volunteers go along with a lunch pack. In most cases, it's one

      volunteer to one room. Other times, there may be two volunteers to one

      room. Matching volunteers to host families and pairing volunteers in a

      room is done by picking needed information from the volunteers. The

      host families are consistently screened with their information updated

      on regular basis to make sure they meet our standards and also match to

      volunteers we send over to them.Â

      The

      foods served are mainly international dishes comprising rice, chicken,

      beef, tea, coffee, bread, eggs, soup, potato, oaths, fruits, fish, etc.

      local foods are served alongside and are made mainly from the above,

      tubers, beans and/or maize. We have to mention that it is very common

      to find dishes volunteers are familiar with in a restaurant in the

      cities.

      Staying

      with a host family is very ideal and cost saving for both the

      volunteers and R.VO. The volunteers get to experience the culture

      closely and better whilst R.V.O also comfortably manages the security

      and safety of the volunteer and properties. In a room,

      each volunteer

      has to his/her own, a bed, pillow and bedspread. In the home of the

      host family, volunteers have access to toilet and bath, kitchen,

      lounge, television, radio, electricity, water, dinning table and table

      sets. We pick families with a man, wife and children. There are some

      places of work and residence without electricity and running water.

      However the volunteer's safe health is well guided Sometimes volunteers

      could request to be paired in the same room or host family.

      You

      might find yourself washing clothes with your hands, cooking with a

      firewood and discussing politics or religion behind candlelight. It is

      a unique opportunity to become deeply immersed with Ghanaian culture.Â

      Drinking

      water for our volunteers is an issue we take seriously and make sure

      that volunteers drink well treated water. Some companies are into the

      manufacture of such water that are well treated and hygienically

      bottled.Â

      The benefits to youÂ

      An

      R.V.O travel experience offers you much more than the opportunity to

      work on a volunteer project overseas. It offers you the simplicity of

      a package

      holiday with all the rewards

      of independent travel.

      Safety

      and supportÂ

      When

      you

      pay for the services of an organization like the r.v.o, you can be

      sure that whatever happens, there’ll be someone nearby to help you out.

      This means that you can travel with confidence to Ghana that you might

      not otherwise have considered.

      Please find attached contact details of some of

      our past volunteers / school groups that you can contact an

    • profile image

      Teo 

      8 years ago

      This is a nice and long rip.

      Good luck to everyone that will do this thing of holidays ;)

    • LRobbins profile imageAUTHOR

      Laurel 

      9 years ago from Germany

      Thanks so much luminous words and mochileiro. I didn't have any experience with marine life, which is why I was so intrigued by this opportunity and I learned so much. Anyone can apply for these types of expeditions. I hope you have the opportunity to do so one day.

    • mochileiro profile image

      mochileiro 

      9 years ago from Brazil

      Wow! I traveled with you trough your photos.

      I would love an expedition like this one that you volunteered. Did you had any prior background or knowledge in marine life? It was necessary or can anyone apply to such expeditions?

      Thank you for the article and amazing photos.

    • luminous words profile image

      luminous words 

      9 years ago from Wales, UK

      I love this - it shows the beauty of the Hebrides and its wildlife, with so much genuine enthusiasm, and lots of useful information.

      I travelled around western Canada alone nearly 20 years ago - had a great time with only my backpack for company.

    • NewHorizons profile image

      Joseph Attard 

      10 years ago from Gozo, Malta, EU.

      This is the beauty of the Internet, meeting people and hearing about new things. Never heard of volunteer vacations, island bagging and such like. I've heard of scuba diving, though and Malta (Mediterranean Island) is fast becoming a diving venue for people of all nationalities, not many Americans though. US is too far away. And America is so.ooo big, you have it all, mountains, desert, sea, lakes, forests, you name it.

    • LRobbins profile imageAUTHOR

      Laurel 

      10 years ago from Germany

      Thanks Tiptopcat,I appreciate your feedback.

    • Tiptopcat profile image

      Victoria Virgo 

      10 years ago from London, UK

      What a fantastic hub. Great photos and great info. This should definitely help people decide whether volunteering is for them or not.

    • LRobbins profile imageAUTHOR

      Laurel 

      10 years ago from Germany

      Ohhh, now that sounds like fun too! So much to do, so little time!

    • LondonGirl profile image

      LondonGirl 

      10 years ago from London

      What a wonderful trip! After Island-bagging, you need to start on the Munro bagging - all the mountains in Scotland over a certain height, perhaps 3,000 feet?

    • Wanderlust profile image

      Wanderlust 

      10 years ago from New York City

      Thank you for sharing your amazing experience. Once I almost signed out for a volunteer vacation to Costa Rica to help turtles. Maybe one day I will go! I put a link to this hub from my hub Great Ideas For Traveling Solo. Please stop by, I would appreciate your comment.

    • LRobbins profile imageAUTHOR

      Laurel 

      10 years ago from Germany

      Thanks for the feedback. I would definitely recommend everyone trying it at least once. It brought me to someplace I would never have discovered otherwise.

    • Karen Banes profile image

      Karen Banes 

      10 years ago from Canada

      Great Hub. I'm from Britain originally but have never been this far North. I've even researched volunteer projects working with marine mammals and have never come across this one (or maybe I was sidetracked by some of the others available in the Bahamas and Hawaii!) Looks amazing from the pics, though. I'm a huge fan of working/volunteering/studying abroad. Beats 'vacationing' any day in my book.

    • MellasViews profile image

      MellasViews 

      10 years ago from Earth

      Very cool. I never even knew of such a thing as a volunteer vacation. I have to look into this more now. : ) I would enjoy it I would imagine, even with the work... .the things you will see!!!! Def worth it.

    • glassvisage profile image

      glassvisage 

      10 years ago from Northern California

      This is a great Hub. I've considered doing this many times, but the prices often deterred me, and Peace Corps told me they didn't need journalism majors :( Your stories really illustrate the experience. I'm still not going to rule this out :)

    • LRobbins profile imageAUTHOR

      Laurel 

      10 years ago from Germany

      Thanks ripplemaker and thanks for the good wishes! We could all use more passion in our lives :)

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 

      10 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Hi LRobbins, amazing what passion can bring into our lives!  Here's to more of that for you.  :-)

      Congratulations for being a Hubnugget Wannabe! Keep promoting (not in the Hubpages forums though) and email your friends from facebook to myspace and your next door neighbors.  Yes, even nonhubbers can vote. LOL  Cheers!

    • LRobbins profile imageAUTHOR

      Laurel 

      10 years ago from Germany

      Thanks so much wordscribe41, I really appreciate your kind words. I loved being surrounded by other animal advocates and people who supported similar causes, that and making a difference was the best part of the adventure. Thanks for your vote!

    • profile image

      wordscribe41 

      10 years ago

      Wow, what a great hub. I had no idea about these volunteer vacations. I'd love to do it, am a huge animal advocate here and would love to have an experience like yours. I thought you did a fantastic job on this hub and I voted for it in the Hubnuggets contest.

    • LRobbins profile imageAUTHOR

      Laurel 

      10 years ago from Germany

      Glad you enjoyed it. I'd love to hear what you end up doing. There are so many unbelievable choices. I wouldn't do it every year, but probably every few years as it really was an incredible experience.

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      10 years ago from Ohio

      You make a working vacation sound like such fun! I am now thinking about what I would like to do. I have always thought about doing something like this, and after reading your hub, I feel as if I should look more closely. Thanks for the info and the beautiful pictures.

    • LRobbins profile imageAUTHOR

      Laurel 

      10 years ago from Germany

      Thanks Ethel, glad you enjoyed it. It's easy to be inspired by such a beautiful place.

    • ethel smith profile image

      Ethel Smith 

      10 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      Such a lot of information in this hub and some fabulous photos. Thanks

    • LRobbins profile imageAUTHOR

      Laurel 

      10 years ago from Germany

      Thanks for your comments. I was really surprised at how much work it was and worked longer days than I did in my real job. It's definitely not for everyone but I'd love to do it again probably next time with chimpanzees or orangutans.

    • Herald Daily profile image

      Herald Daily 

      10 years ago from A Beach Online

      I don't think that a volunteer vacation is for me. When I'm on holidays, I don't want to work.

      It sounds like you had an amazing adventure. Great pictures and memories, I'm sure!

      Think you'll do it again?

    • lrohner profile image

      lrohner 

      10 years ago from USA

      Great photos!

    • profile image

      willieandbobo 

      10 years ago

      Really Neat!! We're looking for some volunteer vacations where we can work with dogs, say at an animal shelter overseas or something. Anyone know of any?

    • profile image

      Kikicat 

      10 years ago

      Thanks for all the useful info. I will have to do some further research to find the perfect volunteer vacation for me.

    • profile image

      cgpodetz 

      10 years ago

      Cool story. I never thought there would be so many sharks that far north--and harmless ones at that!

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