Written on: 15/09/2011 by EloiseSaunders
"I recently spent a couple of weeks on board a beautiful yacht sailing around the islands off the Neopolitan coast assisting a team of marine biologists and scientists." This is how I describe my voluntary project, and when people respond with laughter and comments about what hard work it must have been, I can't help but crack a smug smile.
I decided to take a career break having slogged my guts out climbing the corporate ladder, and was attracted to the Italian project because of it's close proximity to home, natural curiosity about a field I have no knowledge of, and a determination to overcome my fear of the sea - and most specifically what lies beneath. Whilst I knew the location would be beautiful, I was overwhelmed daily by the perfection of the small Mediterranean islands we sailed around, and everything that went with living on board. Sleeping under the stars, showering under hose pipes in the sweltering heat in harbours carved out of rock faces, and feasting on the wonderful Italian cuisine and ample local wine to name a few regular indulgences.
It’s difficult to rate the organisation and my understanding of the objectives of the project in Italy, as the staff’s approach is very laid back and informal – as should be expected of the Mediterranean lifestyle! For me this was a fantastic part of the trip, and exactly what I hoped to experience coming from a very corporate background – however for others it may be seen to be disorganised. You must quickly get used to not knowing where you will sail to or whether the boat will return to the permanent harbour, anchor at sea, or explore further afield. All of which add to the charm of the experience - which is heightened by the friendliness of the crew and an immediate admiration of their passion for marine mammals.
I found that if you were forthcoming in asking for information, then you would receive it, however I noted of other volunteers that it is very easy to attend this project and literally do nothing. I’d recommend that people are aware of this prior to embarking as you get what you put in – and had I not have been there for a longer period I may not have benefitted as much as I did once I got to know people, and my confidence grew to get more involved with things. The staff’s approach is that it is often easier to do things themselves…unless you stick your neck out and prove that you can be of benefit to them. Once you’ve done so then you will be trusted to undertake most tasks. I was lucky enough to assist conducting research into the breathing patterns of a group of 6 sperm whales that we found – which was probably the highlight of my trip. A few days prior we had encountered a group of 8 males, which for the biologists was the largest group they had ever seen. Some volunteers aren’t fortunate enough to find such marine life, and some days there are no sightings which should be stressed before embarking. Again, not a problem for myself, but having got to know the staff they mentioned that a lot of people’s expectations were unrealistic.
Your typical daily tasks as a volunteer will involve undertaking watching shifts (aided by binoculars), assisting with sailing tasks (if you want to learn), and general upkeep of the boat (cooking, cleaning, washing up). If there is a sighting you can assist with data collection, photography or monitoring of behavioral patterns - and again this will very much depend on your sticking your neck out to get involved. Evenings centre around socialising at meal times, either on board or with the captains friends (I visited several peoples houses), and reviewing the days work accompanied with Q&A about the biologists research. On the odd occasion we indulged in some karaoke in a local club, which must be undertaken with a knowledge that if you are sailing the next day, a hangover is not advised! I found this to be an enriching social exercise in addition to the marine research element, and often found myself mixing English, French and Italian to communicate – which was both challenging and fun.
I would whole heartedly recommend this project to anybody that needs to be reminded of the beauty of the world around them. If you are looking for a blend of work and relaxation - with a natural curiosity about the sea, whether you come from a scientific background or not, it would be impossible not to be intrigued by the wonderful work that is being done on board the ship. By the end of my experience I was diving ten feet off the top mast into water where you couldn't even see another boat or land, let alone what was underneath!
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