About to be done with my bachelor, in need of some experience and the travel-bug itching, I was 3 years ago looking around for what to do. A note on a board at uni became the solution. A PhD. student was looking for a volunteer to come to South Africa and help with her research. A letter of interest sent, a positive reply, a load of practical preparation of vaccines and visa later, and I landed in Cape Town at the end of July.
I spent the following 4 months in a little town south of Cape Town called Gansbaai. Work was completely dependent on the weather; when the weather allowed we were out collecting data and on bad I was working on the computer. For someone who’s very uncomfortable with heights it was not easy crawling up the ladder inside a 30m water tower, though I crawled up and down it like I’d done it my entire life be the end of my stay. I spent many a days (and even one night) on that water tower gazing out over the ocean in search of whales and dolphins, and some days swapped the water tower for a balcony.
Though it was cold, a bit windy and long hours at times, it was worth it for the kick of spotting something. As the season progressed and you could spot Southern Right Whales (they have their calves in that area and stay until the young are strong enough to move on) everywhere, it was the dolphins that became fun. Either they would be in big pods way out in the horizon or they would just be a few closer to shore. Spotting them felt great, and it was even greater when we could get a track on them. When it got too windy or the rain arrived we would spend our days working on the computers with the data already collected.
During our free-time we often spent time with some other volunteers that had come to the area to volunteer on cage-diving boats, as it’s a popular area for cage-diving with great white sharks (oh yes, I got the opportunity to get in the cage too). So late afternoons and evenings were often spent at the local pub or at the restaurant of one of the cage-diving companies. Many volunteers were there for a couple of weeks or more, seeing it as a different way of travelling or getting to work with something they were interested in (most were interested in marine life, or even studied it).
I think volunteering is a great way to see different parts of the world. You get to meet people from around the world, help with work and get a little insight into a different life and work. You get to do things that not everyone gets to do (hey, how often do you get to hang out on a water tower?). However, I think it’s important to not expect that your arrival is what will make the difference, whether you volunteer within the humanities or the environment. I know there are some organisations that rely on volunteers to support their workforce, but there are also those that do it mainly for people to come and have the volunteering experience.
I didn’t volunteer through an organisation, but directly for the PhD student. So I didn’t pay an organisation for the experience, but paid for my expenses as they came. I don’t know if I would say that my work as such made a difference, but I do know that all the work is being used for something. All the hours collecting data and working on it in the computer will be used. It’s going towards a PhD and likely some published scientific papers. For me that means it’s been worth it.
If you want to travel in a different way and get some cool experiences, volunteering on various projects is a good way of doing it. Especially if you are interested in certain things, like sharks or turtles. If you really want your time there to matter, do some research beforehand. If your work will include collecting data, check what happens with the data. Have they been able to answer some questions or found out about something from the data they have so far?
As a biologist who loves travelling, I will likely be volunteering again at some point on an eco-project. So many interesting projects out there around the globe to choose from.