Ocean Escapes

Photos: © Gabriella AhmadiaDreaming of an ocean getaway? Rather than hop on a ferry or spread out the beach towel, dive into the world’s most pristine waters while helping to support conservation efforts.

Biosphere Expeditions is one of the pioneering organizations behind this philosophy. Since 1999, the nonprofit has joined “voluntourists” with scientists working in remote areas around the globe to take on critical conservation issues. The term “biosphere” was coined by Russian scientist Vladimir Vernadsky in 1929 and is defined as “the part of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere occupied by living things.” According to their website, the group’s mission is to make a “small but significant difference to the biosphere” through sustainable ocean adventures that protect our “global natural heritage.” This conscientious ecological ethos has not gone unnoticed over the past decade—the group has won awards from the United Nations Environment Programme, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, National Geographic and the Wall Street Journal, who hailed their work as the “best volunteer travel” around.

This March, Biosphere volunteers will be heading to Tioman, Malaysia—named by Time magazine as one of the world’s most beautiful islands—to monitor the health of the Pulau Tioman Marine Park’s reefs, fish, turtles, sharks and dolphins.

Watching the Reefs

The reefs lie just inside Malaysia’s “coral triangle,” an area that has been identified as having the highest biodiversity anywhere in the world—with more than 3,000 species of fish and 75% of all coral species known to science. Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea struck a deal to protect this marine environment during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change conference in Bali, but the island’s growing tourist trade, population boom and land developments are threatening the reefs’ health. Now more than ever, data on the current biological status of the reefs and of population levels of key indicator species are crucial for preservation and educational efforts.

“Surveying coral reefs is, rightly, becoming more commonplace, but getting to hard-to-reach-places with a large enough team to obtain quality, useful data is still a challenge,” Katie Yewdall, a scientist based in Malaysia, told Biosphere. “With Biosphere Expeditions, our research vessel and dedicated volunteers, we can not only do that in Pulau Tioman, but [we can] also spread awareness and increase education on a wide variety of marine conservation issues within local and global communities.”

Diving for Data

In June, diving volunteers will take their conservation efforts to the beautiful 26 coral atolls that make up the Maldives. There, they will assist marine biologists in studying and protecting its spectacular coral reefs, in addition to recording whale sharks encountered during the expedition.

Though many reefs in the Maldives are in a relatively pristine state, the local Ministry of Fisheries insists on preventative research and monitoring work. Data collected by Biosphere, in collaboration with other groups like Reef Check, will aid conservationists monitoring the global status on reefs.

“The collaboration between Biosphere Expeditions and the work of Reef Check in the Maldives is invaluable,” praised Jean-Luc Solandt, the Maldives coordinator for the Marine Conservation Society and Reef Check, on Biosphere’s website. “This collaboration with Biosphere Expeditions has very significantly widened our understanding about the health of Maldivian reefs. We look forward to further successful surveys next year with our Maldives partners.”

Other groups like the Sierra Club and Oceanic Society will also host groups of shoreline explorers this year. Sierra Club travelers will head to St. John to snorkel, sea kayak, hike tropical forests and see old ruins. Unlike St. Thomas, “where hotels claim the best beaches and private homes dominate the views,” the group notes, “the Virgin Islands National Park is mostly on and around St. John. Three-fourths of St. John is in the national park, making it one of the most non-commercialized of all the Caribbean islands.”

LINDSEY BLOMBERG is a senior writer for E.