HUNDREDS of people have found that a vacation can be much more than sitting on a beach watching a palm tree bend in the breeze. In fact, the number of opportunities are expanding for those who want to help with scientific research while seeing the world.
Lots of vacationers are not only donating their time, they are also funding the research project and paying travel expenses to get to the site. Several organizations sponsor programs to remote areas where volunteers study, chart, dig, or record findings for researchers.
One of the oldest and best-known groups is Earthwatch, founded in 1971. It offers more than 100 expeditions this year to 44 countries. Two others, the Foundation for Field Research (begun in 1982) and the 20-year-old Conservation, Education, Diving, Archaeology, and Museums project, which specializes in marine research.
These organizations came into being as a way to raise money for research as government funding was being cut off, and to satisfy the desire of people to get out into the world and make a difference. Artifacts and findings from most projects are donated to museums.
Many volunteers sign up year after year. For instance, Marilyn Garrett of Toronto has gone on six trips, three of them to the Easter Islands to help record ancient petroglyphs.
Her trip was with the University of California's University Research Expeditions Program (UREP), now in its 14th year. She likes it because it allows her to ``really experience the local culture, work with a scientist doing research, interact with interesting people, and return home feeling I've done something worthwhile.''
Jean Colvin, director of UREP, explained that there is a similarity among the projects and locations offered by every organization like hers, since each one relies on untrained volunteers. The organizations are all separate, however.
UREP projects range from watching birds in a rain forest in Africa to studying sacred shrines in Hawaii. Volunteers may document the survival strategies of sharecroppers living in the drought-prone Brazilian northeast, or research medieval churches in Ireland. But not all projects are in a distant place - some are as close as California.
ACCORDING to Ms. Colvin, the size of the group varies according to the project; the average size is six to 12 people, though some projects are limited.
``We try to limit the number of volunteers so that there is more interaction between the participants and with the leader,'' she says.
A research project may last for a few weeks, with several sessions. The volunteer signs on for a two-week stint, paying for a portion of the costs of the project, along with food and shelter. He is responsible for his own transportation and expenses to reach the assembly point.
Costs for projects listed in the 1989 brochure average $1,200. In the early 1980s some expenses were tax deductible; tax-law changes since 1986 make deductions harder to claim.
If you're not into research but like working and living outdoors, you might investigate the Volunteer Vacations sponsored by the American Hiking Society. These projects help preserve state and national parks and forests by building new or reconstructing existing trails.
Volunteers over age 16 in good physical shape and ready to pay their own way and do hard work are accepted into this program. In some places, volunteers have to pack their own gear, food (all food provided by Hiking Society), and equipment several miles to a site. Last year 250 volunteers each spent 10 days participating in the program. All the scheduled projects on trails used by hikers, horses, and skiers were completed.
Volunteer Vacations goes into its 10th year having received Gulf Oil's Conservation Award and the Outsider of the Year award from Outside Magazine, attesting to the impact the program has had on the trails of America.
Among the Hiking Society's 25 projects from Hawaii and Alaska to Massachusetts this year is one in Lincoln National Forest, near Ruidoso, N.M. Starting on June 26, at an altitude of 7,000 to 9,400 feet, work will be done to maintain the Padilla and Tortalita Trails. One of the appeals of this location is that both trails just happen to be in the Smokey Bear Ranger District, where the original Smokey Bear once roamed.
If you want to learn more about any of these programs, contact:
AHS Volunteer Vacations. PO Box 86, N. Scituate, MA 02060. Send a 10-inch stamped self-addressed envelope for information.
Conservation, Education, Diving, Archaelogy and Museums (CEDAM). Fox Road, Croton-on-Hudson, NY 10520.
Earthwatch. 680 Mount Auburn St. PO Box 403, Watertown, MA 02272.
Foundation for Field Research. 787 South Grade Road. PO Box 2010, Alpine, CA 92001.
University Research Expeditions Program (UREP). University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720.