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A Volunteer Vacation with Earthwatch Chasing Dolphins

Dolphins under water

About a year ago I decided I wanted a vacation where I would experience the local culture first hand, meet people from around the world, and do something worthwhile in a country where it was warm in the winter. My ultimate choice was an Earthwatch research project involving dusky dolphins in Kaikoura, New Zealand.

About 10 years ago Kaikoura started a "swim with the dolphins" tourist program. Snorkelers are dropped in the middle of a pod in hopes of having a close encounter with a dolphin. Our job was to monitor and track the interaction of the two species. The goal was to find a balance between the curiosity of tourists and enough privacy for the dolphins so they stayed healthy. A simultaneous project studied dolphin communication methods.

Duskys concentrate in pods as large as 400. It was an incredible experience to be in the middle of all that energy.

We got up at sunrise and were usually done by mid-afternoon. We left the dolphins alone during mid-day so they could have some rest and privacy. After we returned to the Earthwatch house, we fed data into the computer and helped with dolphin dorsal fin identification. Then it was siesta, reading, or exercise time.

Somehow because of the combination of males and females and being first to register, I ended up with my own room and a private balcony. I had views of the South Pacific sunrise to the east and the Kaikoura mountain range to the northwest.

After working in the corporate world for 20 years, seeing life from the perspective of an environmental scientist taught me a greater respect for the environment and other living species.

Volunteer Organizations

Earthwatch has sponsored 1400 projects in 120 countries since 1971. Projects usually run between two to three weeks in length. In addition to helping the environment, the projects also bring together scientists and the general public. Earthwatch projects are generally tax deductible, which helps offset the moderately high costs.

Two references to help you in your research are: Volunteer Vacations by Bill McMillon and the Alternative Travel Directory, published by Transitions Abroad.

If you don't have the time to do your own research you may want to start with the following volunteer organizations:

The original and most popular "dolphin encounter" company is Dolphin Encounter.

For more information about Kaikoura, contact the Kaikoura Visitor Information Centre at

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