10 questions to ask before volunteering with a marine conservation project.

So you’ve decided to volunteer with a marine conservation project. You may even have chosen your organisation (or at least narrowed things down). But before you sign up, here are 10 questions to ask before volunteering to make sure you pick the right one for you.

1 – What is the purpose of the project?

This may seem like one of the more obvious questions to ask before volunteering and for some projects the answer is simple. Building an artificial reef to encourage marine life to re-populate a damaged area. Protecting turtle nesting sites against poaching. Rehabilitating injured marine life and returning them to the wild.

However, other projects are not so straightforward. Why have they set up the project? If the project is dolphin monitoring or coral reef surveying, then ask where does the data go? Why is it being collected, and why are they using a particular site?

Most importantly, what is the overall aim of the project? Is their goal to help change government policy, or to help local communities get engaged? Perhaps their mission is to set up a marine protected area. Whatever the reason, the project must have a long-term plan.

Injured seal being released

2 – What is the status of the project?

Some projects carry out the same work year after year such as protecting nesting turtles or monitoring the effects of tourism on whales and dolphins.

However, some projects work in stages. The project could just be starting out and the staff are still finding their feet and sorting out logistics. Or, the project could be nearing its end, a lot of the work has already been done and staff are more focussed on writing up reports.

The stage of the project is important and will dictate what activities you will be involved in and what skills you may learn. You certainly don’t want to arrive somewhere keen to do surveys and discover that all the surveys have already been completed. Read the latest published project reports and get assurance that they are on track.

3 – What are the biggest frustrations?

Every single project has its own challenges. The more remote the base, the harder it can be to get spare parts should a vital piece of equipment break such as the boat or the compressor. If the base is in a foreign country, there might be extra rules and regulations that slow down progress. From the possibility of extreme weather to political instability, find out what problems relate directly to your project and decide if you are happy to accept them if they happen. Your agency should be open with you and set expectations.

Remote island with coral reef.

4 – What is your role and how will you contribute?

Knowing beforehand what is expected of you will ensure you’re not surprised on site. Joining a volunteer project is meant to be fun, but you’re not on holiday. There will be schedules to stick to, and chores to complete.

Are there any skills you need to have before joining? Are there specific skills you want to learn when you are there? Most projects welcome volunteers with no specific skills as long as they are willing and open-minded. Asking the organisation what makes a great volunteer for their project will give you a great idea if your expectations are aligned.

You can read volunteer reviews and ask to talk to past volunteers about their experiences and what they contributed to the project. You will want to complete your volunteering experience knowing that you made a positive difference.

5 – What does a ‘day in the life’ look like?

Will you be getting up at 6am every day, or patrolling the beaches throughout the night? Do you get days off – if so, how many and what is there to do with your free time? What about day-to-day chores like cooking and cleaning – who does those? How do you get to the survey sites, and how far away are they? Gaining an understanding of what your day-to-day life will be like will help you prepare for life on-site.

6 – Where does your contribution fee go?

Another important question to ask before volunteering is where your fee goes? Is the project a non-profit charity, or are they running a business? Nearly all volunteer agencies ask for a fee to join – not just ocean conservation projects. It sounds strange when you think you’re volunteering your time for free, but without this money these projects would not be able to carry out their work.

Understanding the research they do can drastically alter the cost of your stay. All equipment used will require maintenance. Perhaps scuba diving and/or running a boat is involved? There will be staff salaries and other costs in running a base of operations.

Ask for a clear breakdown on what your money will be used for. How much goes to the organisation, the cause, and the community you’re helping? And how much is spent on you, that is, your food and accommodation?

High prices aren’t a sign of a quality project, but good pricing transparency is.

7 – How ethical/ green are they?

You’d be forgiven for assuming that a conservation organisation and the projects they run are automatically green, but some could be better. Ask if the agency has won any green awards, or have they partnered with other green agencies such as Green Fins? Do they have a recycling scheme on site and if not, how do they deal with rubbish? Do they get involved or organise beach cleans?

How well has the project integrated into the local community, and are local people being trained up too? You would hope that if and when the project finishes that the conservation activities will continue.

Many organisations have jumped on the ‘voluntourism’ bandwagon. Ensure that the project you choose is doing serious conservation work that benefits both the marine life and local communities.

8 – Who else will be there?

Volunteer projects attract all sorts of people from gap year students to retirees. You should join a project with an open mind about who you might meet. No matter someone’s age or background, you all have something in common – a love of the sea.

Some organisations attract younger or older crowds. If it’s important to you to be with people your own age, then make sure you ask about the ages of past volunteers. Even better, find out the ages and number of people who are already signed up for when you want to go.

9 – When is the best time to join?

When thinking about what to ask before volunteering, this question can get overlooked. However, it can be vital to your experience. Many projects are based around marine life migratory patterns, or reproductive cycles. There will normally be on-site activities that last all year round, but if you’re choosing your project in order to see a particular marine life, make sure you join at the right time.

Man photographing whale on volunteer project

10 – What is the recommended length of time to join?

Ask how long it takes for you to become a productive part of the team. Some projects require more training than others. New volunteers will almost always spend the first day (or even two) involved in on-site introductory safety briefings before starting any training.

If you need to gain a scuba diving qualification or learn how to identify different marine life before joining in with the science, then that also takes time. Therefore, make sure you pick a project where you can get the most out of your time there, in the time you have available.

If you can only sign up for a week, then choose a project which requires little training so you can get stuck in straight-away. If you’re unsure about signing up for a long period of time, ask what the minimum amount of time required is, then find out if you can extend when you’re on site.

That’s 10 questions to ask before volunteering with a marine conservation project

When it comes to choosing an organisation to volunteer with, the more questions you ask the better. By doing so you’ll increase your chances of having an awesome experience and going home satisfied. If you have a question that we haven’t included in our list, then let us know in the comments below. We’ll do our best to answer them.

Have you checked out our recommended volunteering projects? What’s more, all Sea Fans can get a discount through our partner agencies.