Seattle Magazine, May 2007
By Roddy Scheer
When is a vacation more than just a vacation? When you combine it with the opportunity to do some good…
Spend a week on a remote island outpost off the wild and woolly coast of British Columbia tracking whales and roasting marshmallows over an open fire? Sign me up. That’s just what I said when EarthWatch called this past summer to tell me a last-minute spot had opened up on its popular Whales of British Columbia expedition, where volunteers spend a week in the field helping marine biologist William Megill unravel the mystery of why gray whales migrate 18,000 miles every year between the warm waters off Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and the storm-battered North Pacific coast of Canada. In this case, the field was a small island in the chilly blue-green Pacific waters of Queen Charlotte Strait, roughly 400 miles north of Seattle.
As part of Megill’s research team for the week, I joined five other volunteers-some of whom hailed from as far away as Germany and Japan-scouting for whales, gathering ecosystem data, sorting through and identifying thousands of whale photos, launching and collecting unmanned research submarines, and generally supporting ongoing studies on the fate of gray whales and the coastal marine ecosystems upon which they depend. Our days were varied: We spent time out at sea on the research vessel, paddling in kayaks while gathering information and on shore in a research shack working on a variety of tasks. Evening discussions and slide shows with Megill ensured that each volunteer had a clear understanding of the issues at stake.
Megill is the first to admit that without the support of EarthWatch and its seemingly endless supply of paying volunteers, his gray whale research likely would have gone the way of the dodo years ago. Indeed, each EarthWatch volunteer pays upwards of $1,800 for the privilege of being part of the B.C. research team for a week (trips run from late July through mid-September). But just because the trips are pricey, volunteers shouldn’t expect any pampering: Their funds go toward science, not five-star accommodations. On Megill’s trip, we slept in bunks in unheated plywood cabins, ate our communally prepared meals around an open-air fire pit and took care of business in buckets and outhouses. Despite the lack of creature comforts, though, the experience left me invigorated, educated and wanting more.
EarthWatch offers many opportunities for volunteers-many far beyond the Pacific Northwest. I am having trouble deciding whether I want to count scarlet macaws in the Peruvian Amazon, trace the life cycle of endangered butterflies on the flanks of Japan’s Mount Fuji or measure the retreat of glaciers in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. But with EarthWatch as my guide, I know I can’t go wrong.