Tuesday, April 5, 2011


What's Your Word?

I had planned to put together posts about my travels and other activities in my pre-blogging life, so when Brittany at Mommy Words began her What's Your Word series with "Adventure", I thought I'd jump on the chance to participate and share a little peek into my past with you!

My husband and I love outdoors and nature - trail running, backpacking, and hiking.  We're also pretty into the environment and ecology, and try to put our money where our mouths are and contribute to related causes.  Dave had participated in a volunteer vacation through the Oceanic Society doing a reef survey before we had met.  I loved this idea and tried to find a trip that we could go on together.  Oceanic Society had plenty of trips to choose from, but the locals and timing were somewhat limited.  Then I found Earthwatch.org and the possibilities became endless!

Earthwatch Institute is an international non-profit organization that allows people concerned about our planet to participate in the science of it's study.  Basically, it's a clearing house that works with local grass-roots organizations and researchers and provides them with hands and minds to help with their activities.  There are projects in every continent excluding Antarctica, and studying just about everything you could think of.  The research covers archeology & palentology, climate change, cultures, human/wildlife conflict, managing resources, ocean health, threatened animals, and threatened habitats.

We chose to focus on threatened animals, and have taken two different Earthwatch volunteer vacations:  Trinidad Leatherbacks and South African Penguins.

I'm going to focus this post on the South African Penguin trip to keep what's already going to be a long post from becoming insanely long.  Not to knock the turtles or Trinidad or anything, but there were some logistical issues that I didn't really consider before the trip - you're walking the beach at night, which means it's dark (DUH!), and sandy (again, DUH!).  Since I wear contacts and have pretty bad vision even with correction, that became a bit of a challenge for me.  I ended up having to wear my glasses to prevent the sand from scratching my eyes, which then limits my peripheral vision.  We also were on a pretty funky schedule - sleeping from around 4 am until around noon, and then doing a little housekeeping and sightseeing in the area until dark and then we'd head to the beach.  It's still definitely worth discussing, and I do plan to post about it, but that will come later.

Working with the South African penguin colony on Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned) just off the coast of Capetown was sincerely one of the most amazing experiences I will ever have.  The stark beauty of the island combined with the history of it, the people we were working with, and the penguins and other wildlife combined to make just a stellar experience.

Our routine basically consisted of spending the bulk of the day from mid-morning until late afternoon surveying our assigned area.  This meant checking known nests using a GPS, a long stick, and a camera to see if the occupants were the same as the last survey. 

The nests were marked with tags with an assigned number and the GPS coordinates.  If we found an unmarked nest, we would make a new tag and mark it and photograph the inhabitants.  For the known nests, we would try to identify the penguin using photos taken of one or both of the nesting pairs; taking a photo if the one we found hadn't been photographed.  The little spots and markings on the penguin's head and chest are how we would identify them.  Then we would poke underneath them gently with the long stick to pry them up a bit and see how many eggs or chicks they were sitting on.  Let me tell you - they look all cute and curious, but they're really plotting how to kill you, and they don't like being poked!  Finding all the nests in an area wasn't easy - it felt like we were wandering all over the place, but we got better at it over time.

In the evenings, we would either participate in penguin counts as the penguin who had been fishing returned to the nest along "highways" - highly trafficked areas, or go on game counts around the island.  We would use telescopes and binoculars to attempt to read arm bands on some of the tagged penguins.  Many of the area birds were tagged after an oil spill several years prior, and this information was very important to track the survival rates of oiled birds.  This photo was taken on the last night of our trip - I didn't drink wine on the job as a general practice, but we were celebrating and having a good time.  The game counts consisted of riding in the "backie" - Afrikaans for a pickup truck - and riding around the island counting the Springbok, Eland, Steenbok and Bontebok and trying to spot the one lonely surviving Ostrich.

We also got to participate in a couple of specialized studies.  I went to do a chick measurement survey with a visiting student, and got to hold the fuzzy chicks while they weighed and measured them.  The chicks are pretty calm, unlike the adults.

Dave participated in a diet sample, by wrangling the biting, flapping, clawing and pooping adults and taking them to the researcher doing the study who would force sea water down their throats to cause them to regurgitate into a sieve so she could see how successful they were in their fishing trips.  I think I got the better of the special studies - don't you?

One really interesting thing we got to see was a couple of injured and endangered birds that we discovered were sent to the local rehabilitation center - SANCCOB.  One bird was found in an abandoned building tangled in piles of fishing line and looked like it's foot was hurt.

Another had tar on it's belly - maybe fell down on a freshly tarred road on the island.  The tar itself won't hurt the bird, but if they preen and clean it off it hurts their digestive tract and prevents them from being able to absorb the food they eat properly.  This is the main danger in oil spills as well.

We boxed them up and sent them to Capetown on the ferry.  We were able to visit them at the rehabilitation center later on and see that they were doing much better.  This is the tarred bird doing much better and getting along well with his cage mates.

Typically your weekends are your own, so we went into Capetown and toured the wine regions on a small organized tour.  We ordered some lovely wines to be shipped home to us from this vineyard - Anura, which means frog.

We also were able to participate in a tour of the prison on Robben Island - the island itself is essentially a museum and the wildlife preserve.  The tours of the prison are conducted by former inmates, so this man holding up what was as their "bed" served time in the prison.  Most of the inmates were political prisoners.  The island historically had been used as a leper colony in the mid-1800's, and as a defense outpost during World War II.

The other participants and researchers on this trip were amazing to spend time with.  One couple were making a return to the island, and had made trips on their own to neighboring islands to help out.  The principle researcher on the project still sends us Christmas cards with penguins on them each year.

One of the small side benefits of a volunteer vacation is that all of the expenses are tax-deductible.  I know this was long, but I really hope you found this enlightening, and if your interest and situation allow you to participate in a volunteer vacation similar to this - please do so! 


  1. Sounds like an interesting experience, I'm not sure I'd like poking penguins, but it still sounds fun.

  2. Hi, I have given you a 'Versatile Blogger Award'. This was given to me and I am passing it on to you. Check my latest blog post for information on what this is. http://thesteadyhand1.blogspot.com/ Hope you can join in the fun! Thank you ~ The Steady Hand

  3. Wow this sounds amazing and like one of those many things I would have LOVED to do before all these babies. Maybe I can put it back on the list when we are all older. I love that you did this and took the time to make a difference while traveling. Those penguins are so cute and I had no idea they were so fiesty! What a fabulous experience!

  4. Wow! I am just amazed at that story. It must have been such a great experience for you. I am hoping for a volunteer vacation as my kids get older and this has really encouraged me. Thanks.

  5. What a neat opportunity! I'd love to do something like this someday. I'm visiting from Amy's blog!


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