Talking with dolphins -- just one research opportunity for amateurs

''My friends thought I was a bit strange, going off to chat with the dolphins ,'' recalls Nerida Joice. ''My Mum was going around the house humming 'Dr. Doolittle.' ''

Nerida, however, wasn't deterred from going ahead with her vacation plans: spending $1,900 - not including airfare from her Sydney, Australia, home - to spend a month working in Honolulu as a volunteer on a scientific project that involves communicating with dolphins.

''It's something that's a bit different,'' says the young woman, who helps design roads for a living. ''And I like to do things that are different.''

Thousands of people like Nerida Joice, looking for something a bit different, have found what they're searching for in Earthwatch - a volunteer organization that serves as a bridge between the public and the scientific community.

Since it began with four pilot projects in 1971, the Belmont, Mass.-based organization has involved some 5,500 men and women in scientific research expeditions in 30 states and 55 countries. During that time it also has raised more than $3 million in private funds to support scientific research around the world.

In a period of declining government support for the scientific community, Earthwatch - which provides scientists with volunteers and badly needed dollars - is more in demand than ever before. This year, the organization is involved in 82 research projects. Staffers say the flood of requests for help from the scientific community is three times what the organization now handles.

''The contribution of Earthwatchers is substantial, in terms of both money and volunteer work,'' says Dr. Louis M. Herman, who has run the dolphin experiment at the University of Hawaii's Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory for 31/2 years.

Although Dr. Herman will not discuss the amount of cutbacks in funding for his project by the National Science Foundation, he does say ''it would be difficult to run the project without Earthwatch's assistance.''

According to Earthwatch expedition coordinator Laurie Rothstein, the dolphin project has been one of the organization's most popular expeditions since it first began sending volunteers last November. Already, volunteers, who sign up for two- to eight-week periods, have been scheduled through next January - with only a few spaces left open.

Volunteers on the dolphin project work closely with scientists conducting the research and with the two dolphins themselves, Phoenix and Akeakamai. The experiment involves teaching the dolphins special languages - one a sign language and one a sound-based language - to determine their understanding of linguistic complexity. Earthwatch volunteers help at two daily two-hour training sessions by recording data, assisting in language instruction, and playing with the dolphins.

''It's worth every penny,'' says Carrie Hink, a nurse from Los Angeles. ''I'd do it again, no question . . . I've been interested in dolphins ever since I was a kid.''

Besides contributing their time, Earthwatch volunteers, who each pay a $20 annual membership fees, provide an important financial boost to scientific projects. Approximately 60 percent of the price they pay to participate on an expedition goes directly to funding the research project. The remainder covers Earthwatch costs of administering and developing the programs. Because Earthwatchers are volunteers, donating their time to a tax-exempt activity, all the fees they pay are tax deductible.

Other Earthwatch projects this year include archaeological digs in Scotland, Greece, and Africa, and humpback whale research in the Caribbean and the Pacific.

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