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Dive Volunteer Groups: taxonomy and culture

SURG underwater research group solitary islands

Dive volunteers have different motives for becoming volunteers. Some are ad hoc volunteers, wanting to pay back to the oceans but aren't time rich. Some are community-spirited and want a group of like minded people to care for a particular cause. Some are marine biology PhD candidates, looking to work with a scientist in a particular field. Some are in a gap year. Some want free diving. And many, a combination thereof.

The Groups and Personalities section highlights some groups that DiVo has personally met and dived with. This section gives a broad overview of the different categories of volunteer groups which exist in terms of goals, cultural ethos and modus operandi.

Gap year volunteer groups If you google dive + volunteer, what comes highest in the rankings tends to be international non-profit gap year overseas placement organisations like projects-abroad, Global Vision International, Frontiers, Coral Cays and Blue Ventures. They benefit google ranking-wise from hits by the world-walkabout crowd who could have interests in teaching, community building and other job placements. There is a good article about these organisations, the Best Volunteer Opportunities for Divers Worldwide, although a health warning, it is written as though these were the only types of volunteer groups out there.

"Gap year" is a misnomer, a shortcut for referring to people who want a hiatus from their usual jobs, which can vary between a few weeks to a couple of years. Many of these organisations require a time commitment of a minimum one month (but check the individual websites for shorter durations). There is good reason for the extended time commitment, since some of these organisations will train you rigorously in the work methodologies. For the entire duration of the expedition, the volunteer works out of a single shore-based location.

As you live and work in the local community for an extended time, be prepared for living conditions quite different from home. The funding sources of these non-profit NGOs vary, but usually, the volunteer pays to cover food, board and other costs. This can stack up to a few thousand dollars/pounds although considering the duration of the expedition, it is an economical opportunity to live and dive in a place abroad for an extended period.

Project specific expeditions Volunteers can also join an expedition of marine biologists or oceanic scientists on a research mission. Eye to Eye Marine Encounters in Australia and the Geneva-based Antinea Foundation are examples of liveaboard based operations, and Earthwatch conducts a number of non-liveaboard dive/marine projects. What the volunteer pays to join the expedition partly funds the research or sponsors the trip for the scientists (field trips being an expensive component of the scientists’ grant funding); sometimes, that may be the raison d’etre for the volunteer’s involvement. The volunteer may get involved in helping hands-on or observe how the scientists do things. The time commitment required of the volunteers varies depending on the operator, but can be as short as a week. DiVo is organising a one week Reef Life Survey trip to the Great Barrier Reef and Lizard Island in December 2011 where volunteer divers can be trained in fish survey methodology in a marine research station on Lizard Island.

International or national network volunteer groups Good examples of this genus in Australia or internationally is Reef Life Survey, Reef Check International and Reef Check Australia. Although headquartered somewhere, their activities span the country or globe and they draw volunteers from all over. Generally, these groups seek to do surveys with wide spatial coverage repeated over time, accounting for the broad spread of membership base.

The time commitment to the surveys + training generally will be a few days. Funding can be from donations or government grants but usually the volunteers can join a day-trip survey paying nothing or a nominal amount, although the volunteers do pay for food and board during the initial training camps. Survey opportunities depend on available funding to lift off a boat trip, and generally, the calls to volunteers come every few months. The survey sites span the coastline, so volunteers do not survey the same site all the time, although they may repeat a survey over time to gauge temporal changes.

The cultural ethos of each group will vary, but training can be rigorous. Many of the members are also avid photographers, their interest in fishlife and coral variety generally having been piqued through underwater photography.

Community/local dive volunteer groups These groups are local in nature and therefore the most difficult to ferret out; therefore, the commentary is limited to the Australian context (in particular, the NSW/Queensland area within which DiVo dives most). Actually, in NSW, there are two sub-genuses, the underwater research group and the Coastcare group.

Some underwater research groups started early – Sydney’s URG, for instance, was established in 1953 and Solitary Island URG (or SURG) was set up in the 1980s – and today, there are a number of URGs established along the coast of NSW. Their activities centre around marine research and conservation projects most of which are grant funded. Their projects last for the duration of the grant cycle and as a condition of the grant, have to meet certain deliverables within committed timeframes. These groups therefore require a committed core of volunteers although they do welcome ad hoc volunteers. Outside of funding cycles, the URGs may function as recreational diveclubs, and the regulars are usually knowlegeable about marine life and enthusiastic photographers. The majority of members are not marine academics. In Queensland, an example of a local dive group is OUCH (Order of the Underwater Coral Heroes) who are a collective of local divers and diveshop operators. OUCH’s activities include seagrass monitoring and assistance in mooring recovery and maintenance, and it has been an influential lobby voice in the Great Barrier Reef’s zoning issues.

Coastcare groups, on the other hand, started in the mid 1990s as an extension of the national Landcare movement, a program emanating from a federal government study into how best to involve government, community and industry groups in the care and management of the local environment. They are best described as grassroots groups of concerned citizens who organise themselves locally to pursue a common cause. Diving is not the predominant focus of Coastcare groups although their interest in marine conservation overlaps that of the underwater research groups. Although their activities may not be glamorous, eg weed pulling, rubbish collection and such, the underlying spirit in Coastcare groups is volunteerism at its most altruistic. For a better understanding of the stakeholders involved in Coastcare, read this blog on NSW Coastal Volunteers Forum.

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