The first morning had all the mystery of a search for the Loch Ness monster.
For several hours our motorboat traversed the shallow bay of Sarasota, Fla., yet no sign of marine life broke the surface of the waters. I began to wonder if Squiggy, Lasagne, Tramp, or any of the others would make an appearance.
Then an inky-colored fin nicked with several jagged edges sliced across the waves and dipped back down.
The brief sighting was the only identification biologist Sue Hofmann needed. "That's Bobby Jo," she said. "I'm glad to see her again. She's an orphan now. Her mom was killed by a stingray."
"Bobby Jo," a bottle-nosed dolphin, reemerged in graceful arcs around the boat, sometimes swimming under it and then popping up on the other side. We marveled for a minute at her playful antics. Then our team of four volunteers bolted into action, recording the dolphin's behavior, water temperature, and location.
As "scientists" for two weeks we were participating in the longest-running dolphin research project in the world. It is one of many trips offered by Earthwatch, a nonprofit organization based in Watertown, Mass.
For the past 26 years Earthwatch has recruited volunteers to help scientists conduct research into endangered species, ancient cultures, public health, rain forests, coral reefs - among others.
The projects last from one week to a month and cost from $595 for a week cataloging animals in Oregon's caves, to $3,595 for a month helping conserve Namibia's cheetahs - airfare not included.
The expeditions tend to attract those who are environmentally minded and have a sense of adventure.
"Some people would get bored," admits Sarah Podd, a volunteer from London. "You need to be enthusiastic. It's nice to feel you're doing something when on holiday to help animals. You come away with a feeling of achievement, not just getting sunburnt."
The trips run several times or more a year and can involve as few as three to as many as 20 people. Our "Wild Dolphin Societies" project had four ranging in age from 19 to about 50.
The day began about 9 a.m. when we met Ms. Hofmann, our team leader, at the boat dock of Mote Marine Laboratory. We spent the day cruising along miles of shoreline dotted with million-dollar mansions and around tiny islands populated only by birds. Each day brought six to 12 dolphin sightings, ranging from groups of mothers and babies to rowdy juveniles.
We each had a task that we rotated from day to day. One person recorded the longitude-latitude, took the water temperature, and kept a record of how many boats passed close by. Another kept a notebook to log the weather, a third person was responsible for film supplies, and a fourth logged location, dolphin behavior, water conditions - on a data sheet. Between sightings, Hofmann and biologist Randy Wells, who joins the crew a couple of days during the two-week expeditions (volunteers can elect to go for one week), taught us about the smiley-faced creatures.
Dr. Wells started the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program in 1970, and Earthwatch volunteers have participated for the past 16 years. In the beginning, it was a "wide open study," Wells says. "No one knew about social patterns, home ranges of the dolphins." By observing the animals over the years, scientists have learned that the animals live much longer than thought.
Indeed, two-thirds of the Sarasota dolphins identified in 1970 are still seen, as are their calves and grand-calves. Last summer scientists and Earthwatch volunteers recorded the birth of the first great-grand calf.
The information about the dolphins is used to help scientists understand the creatures better, what impact humans have on their habitat, and how both can coexist. Research results are passed to federal wildlife management agencies for conservation and management plans.
About 120 dolphins make up the Sarasota community, and both Wells and Hofmann know each one as if it were a member of their family. Indeed, just the quick surfacing of a fin - which is as unique as a thumb print in the human world - is often all it takes for them to be able to determine whether it's Mama Mia or Pumpkin, for example.
And while dolphins are the focus, volunteers also learn about other marine animals. One afternoon our group was assigned to feed two captured manatees their afternoon "meal" - 77 heads of lettuce, numerous heads of cabbage, swiss chard, and bunches of carrots - an unglamorous job that consisted of washing and hauling vegetables. The high point was hand-feeding the sea cows and watching as they gobbled up their vegetarian feast.
Accommodations on each Earthwatch expedition vary from tents to hotels. In Sarasota, lodging was a simple but comfortable two-bedroom condo that faced a white-sand public beach. Sharing rooms and cooking meals together is often part of the experience, so it helps to have a sense of humor and an ability to get along with just about anybody.
These kind of environmentally focused vacations appeal to many who are tired of touristy trips. "I really enjoy doing something a little bit different. It's a different variety of people you run into than on a typical group tour," says Larry Mitchell, a volunteer here who is a veteran of many Earthwatch trips.
"But the trips aren't cheap. When you figure costs and what you pay to travel, you could do a fairly high-class trip and be pampered. You also get the impression with some that they need your money more than they need you." Still, he says he'll likely go on another Earthwatch project.