Discovering a new species deep in the jungles of Borneo or in the azure waters off the coast of Belize may seem like the exclusive realm of the adventurer-researcher, but a growing number of curious vacationers are doing just that. A dozen or so eco-tourism organizations are catering to citizen scientists wishing to head into the field alongside certified biologists or naturalists. While field experience isn’t necessary, these are no pleasure cruises: Travelers are expected to get their hands dirty making observations, collecting samples, and setting camera traps—or, on some trips, exploring remote zones for undiscovered flora and fauna. And while organizers promise adventure, they stress that their participants are more than just tourists bound to get in the way and instead actively contribute to the advancement of science. Here are some of the best trips on offer.
Founded last year by a Dutch scientist couple, Taxon focuses on finding unknown animals in regions untouched by science. During the company’s first-ever expedition in Borneo, participants found a new kind of slug and several water beetles, one of which was named Grouvellinus leonardodicaprioi, after the eco-friendly actor, says co-founder Menno Schilthuizen; the findings were recently published in ZooKeys, a peer-reviewed journal. Taxon’s second expedition will take place in northern Montenegro’s Durmitor National Park this July. Trips are typically around ten days in length and involve training in field biology, including on-site DNA analysis. $4,560 per person.
Formed in 1999 and a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the UN Environment Programme, this award-winning group connects laymen with long-term scientific projects that have tangible ecological impacts. One example: gathering accurate population counts to help save 50 wolves from becoming legal hunting targets in Poland’s Bieszczady Mountains. Biosphere participants also collected field data that contributed to the creation of southern Africa’s Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, the world’s largest conservation zone. Starting at $1,733 per person.
Founded by American naturalist and wildlife filmmaker Paul Rosolie, Tamandua Expeditions takes you deep into the heart of the Peruvian Amazon, one of the most biodiverse areas on earth. Most trips occur in the Madre de Dios region on a remote tributary that takes two days to reach by riverboat. There is no electricity or luxury digs. Instead, conservation of this riverine ecosystem is front and center, and volunteers lend a hand by maintaining trails, setting camera traps, and rehabilitating howler monkeys, giant anteaters, ocelots, and other injured jungle critters. One of the organization’s ongoing projects involves checking anacondas to determine if there is a correlation between gold mining in the region and mercury accumulation in apex predators. Starting at $1,600 per person.
Environmental nonprofit Earthwatch, founded in 1971, describes its trips as “citizen science on steroids.” Travelers join researchers trekking across mountain ranges or the Arctic tundra, searching for evidence of glacial retreat or exploring how an active Nicaraguan volcano shapes the surrounding ecology. The scientific value of each participant is real. In 2016, for example, volunteers working alongside researchers in Belize discovered a new species of bonnethead shark. In 2001, volunteers unearthed a near-complete skeleton of a new dinosaur species in the Argentinean Andes. Now that is something to scrapbook. From $2,100 per person.