Thanksgiving 2008, I found myself on the breathtaking beaches of San Salvador, Bahamas. Rather than having a traditional US Thanksgiving, I spent the day in the ocean with barracuda, sting rays, and varieties of fish that I hadn’t seen, let alone, even dreamt of before. You may find yourself wondering just why I was there, so let me take you back a few months.

In the summer of 2008, I was finishing my Master’s degree in New York City. It was a unique program that allowed educators, such as myself, to come to New York in the summer when teachers are traditionally on break from work. I opened up my email one afternoon to find that I had been awarded a “Live From the Field” fellowship through Earthwatch that would send me to the Bahamas for just over a week!

I found this opportunity through Earthwatch’s website during the school year, and immediately applied, due to my love of travel, as well as the potential learning this trip would have upon the students I worked with at an inner-city school in Atlanta. The grant that I received covered just about everything associated with the trip, such as airfare, the cost of the expedition, and even a stipend that would be awarded to my school site in order to pay the substitute that would take over my class while I was out.

This all seemed too good to be true! However, I soon realized that Earthwatch is in fact extremely committed to sending people from all walks of life, including educators, on their expeditions, and I was certainly up for the adventure!

To tell you a little about Earthwatch, they’re a non-profit who sends nearly 4,000 volunteers a year to various sites across the globe for them to engage in voluntourism expeditions. The trips are a balance between contributing to research that is being done by the Primary Investigator, or PI, and their team, along with sightseeing and learning about the local area.

Based on my grant I was being sent to San Salvador, Bahamas, to participate in Earthwatch’s “Bahamian Reef Survey”, an eight day expedition focusing on the coral reef. Volunteers would engage in daily activities ranging from snorkeling, beach profiling, and measuring coral bleaching using transect lines in the water. All data would be collected by the PI, and compiled with in a database that had been running for years. One of the best things about Earthwatch is not only do they collect data, but they use the work that they do to educate others, from students to adults, and work to become proactive citizens in protecting our environment.

I headed to the Bahamas late in November, unsure as to what I would find. I hadn’t really heard too much about Earthwatch prior to finding this grant online, and certainly hadn’t ever been on a trip whose focus was “voluntourism”.

Prior to the trip, I had meticulously read and digested their Expedition Briefing, a lengthly booklet that is mailed to all volunteers prior to them heading out to the field. This booklet covered everything from arriving at the “Rendezvous Site”, to what I should pack, to what the schedule would look like for the week. While I felt as if no stone had been left unturned, I was still curious to meet the people I would be spending the next week with, and to experience this unfamiliar place far from home.

As it turns out, going on this expedition was a truly life changing experience. As soon as we arrived at the Gerace Research Centre the place where we would eat, sleep, and go to lecture for the next week, we were greeted with friendly faces and a knowledgeable, eager staff. We did a lot of housekeeping items at first, learning about when and where we would be eating, who we would be sharing a room with, and where evening lecture would be held.

This reminds me of two things – For this expedition, we each had a roommate. In our room was a private bathroom, along with two beds, dressers, and a comfortable enough space. All expeditions’ accommodations vary, so check out the individual website for more information. Also, lectures are a very important, as well as very exciting part of the trip. Each night after a long day in the field, we would gather in a large lecture room in order to learn all about coral bleaching and global warming.

We viewed PowerPoint presentations helping us to identify the various species of fish, learned how to use a seki disk, and so on. Although at first I thought these lectures would be the least appealing of the trip, they actually ended up being extremely interesting and interactive, and really helped to bring us all back to the central reason of why we were there, to contribute to the research.

The research we did included a wide variety of tasks, such as throwing PI frames (a 5 x 5 grid marked with orange flags) and recording what we found underneath each square, such as hard coral, soft coral, algae, rock, etc. We also used transect lines to record data pertaining to beach erosion, and engaged in other tasks that the PI asked us to do. Not to mention, we did have several opportunities for free time, where we would snorkel and marvel in all the wondrous colors and sights around us.

So this is exactly how I found myself on the island of San Salvador on Thanksgiving, and just a little glimpse of some of the exciting work with which I engaged. Interested in learning more about this and other expeditions that Earthwatch offers? Definitely check out their extremely detailed website to learn more about the wide variety of destinations they offer. Me? I loved it so much that I headed to Greece just this past July, as part of Earthwatch’s “Dolphins of Greece” expedition. Now that I’ll have to tell you about another time…

Earthwatch Personal Blog:

Earthwatch Homepage:

Earthwatch Bahamian Reef Survey Page:

Writer Bio: Courtney Russell is a native of New Jersey whose travels have included Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the Bahamas, Greece, and a variety of destinations across the U.S. She is a Teach for America Atlanta 2004 corps member, and currently is a Professional Development Consultant in the field of education, as well as student at the University of Georgia. In her free time she enjoys traveling, reading, and spending time with family.

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