THE CONSERVATION COLUMN: Discover your inner scientist

International environmental charity Earthwatch offers people from all walks of life the unique opportunity to contribute to environmental research projects around the world. Working side by side with expert scientists, a global community of Earthwatch volunteers collectively play a huge and vital role in understanding and protecting threatened habitats, resources and cultures.

In this monthly column, expert marine scientists from Earthwatch will introduce you to the many natural wonders of the deep, and the threats that the planet’s oceans face. They will also share insights into what the latest research findings are telling us, their vision for the future of our seas and the life that they support, and most importantly, how you can get involved in their work.

Over 70% of our planet is water. The oceans drive global weather systems, absorb the heat generated by our carbon-fuelled society and provide a vital protein source for over a quarter of the world’s population. We are all intrinsically linked to and dependent upon the marine environment.

Earthwatch’s marine research programme focuses on the parts of the ocean where the impacts of environmental pressures are most keenly felt. We are working hard to protect populations of endangered species, including turtles, sharks, whales and dolphins. We also support research and conservation projects for highly threatened coastal habitats such as mangroves and coral reefs.

Divers have a privileged access to the secrets that the oceans hold. To swim among a coral reef, teeming with life, rich in colours, shapes and textures is an unforgettable experience. Yet habitat degradation, ocean acidification and pollution put this unique environment under increasing pressure. Earthwatch scientists and volunteers are committed to understanding how coral reefs are being affected, how we can minimise their loss, and restore damaged habitats. Over the last four decades, Earthwatch has supported over 50 coral reef projects in 25 different countries.

In Belize, for example, scientist Dr John Cigliano is working with Earthwatch volunteers to collect data to evaluate the effectiveness of a marine reserve and the enforcement of fishing regulations. His work will feed into management strategies to protect the endangered Queen conch, and the many other marine species that rely on the coral reef system. Crucially, John is also working closely with local stakeholders to build capacity among the community to ensure long-term sustainability of the reserve.

Long-term coral reef monitoring projects are expensive, time consuming and labour intensive, making them difficult to set up and maintain. Organisations like Earthwatch enable the participation of unskilled volunteer researchers – ordinary people like you and me – as a solution to this problem. Coral reef survey techniques can be quickly and easily taught to divers and snorkelers, and with research sites relatively easy to access, the many extra pairs of eyes and hands mean that large quantities of valuable scientific data can be collected in a short space of time.


Divers can boost conservation efforts while enjoying their hobby


Earthwatch projects monitoring coral reef biodiversity have spanned northern and southern hemisphere reefs at a range of latitudes and represented all three major oceans. Data collected has contributed to the establishment of marine reserves and no-boat zones, and documented recovery from coral bleaching events and hurricanes.

Our volunteers often report life-changing experiences on our expeditions. It is only through experiencing nature first-hand that we get a real sense of the beauty, diversity, power and vulnerability of our planet. And it is only through that contact that we will be inspired to act - to question what we as individuals can do to safeguard the future of wildlife and natural resources, to educate ourselves and others about what we stand to lose, and to take those small personal steps that can add up to big differences.

Earthwatch attracts incredible individuals from all walks of life who are curious about the natural world and committed to playing their part in understanding and protecting it. We provide an access point for ordinary people to work alongside leading scientists and conservationists who are passionate about sharing their knowledge and inspiring others to make a difference.

We could not carry out our mission without the commitment of this global movement of volunteers. Without volunteers’ support, our scientists around the world would simply not be able to collect the volume of data that is required to make informed and responsible decisions about the management of our natural heritage.

A number of Earthwatch marine research projects require volunteers with dive qualifications to take part. Find out how you can discover your inner scientist and get involved in one of these, or one of our many other exciting expeditions.


NEXT UP: Earthwatch Ambassador and Sport Diver contributor Paul Rose has his say.

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