At 3 a.m. on a moonless, steamy night, I trudged along a stretch of Caribbean coast, peering into the darkness. My sneakers sloshed with a mixture of wet sand and seawater; sand flies bit my ankles. A few hours earlier, the half-dozen people in my group had chatted quietly as we’d marched along, but now, stumblingly tired and with a light rain misting our faces, we’d fallen silent. We still had miles to go before we slept.
Of course, I’d known when I signed up that this wasn’t going to be a typical beach vacation. I’d come here—to Costa Rica’s remote Gandoca region, a bumpy eight-hour bus ride from the nearest city—for a single reason: to see, and hopefully help, one of the world’s most astounding endangered species, the leatherback sea turtle. Leatherbacks (which can grow to almost six feet long) return to Gandoca’s beaches every year to lay their eggs by night in the black sand. My job, as a recruit with U.K.-based voluntourism organization i-to-i, was to give those eggs a chance to hatch.
I wasn’t alone in my quest to get something more from my vacation than a tan. Dozens of other i-to-i volunteers—from college kids to 50-somethings, and from all over the world—had converged on this tiny Costa Rican community looking to help. In fact, voluntourism programs in general are booming.
The trend is perhaps more surprising when you consider that volunteer participation isn’t exactly free. The program fees for helping the leatherbacks, for example, start at more than $700 a week (and that’s without airfare). While some voluntourism trips are much cheaper, others can cost more than double that.
“Despite the economy, we’re doing really well,” said Calie Yousha, a spokesperson for Global Vision International, which runs programs for conserving the Amazon Rainforest and studying dolphins in the Ligurian Sea, among others. “We’ve actually seen a pretty significant increase in volunteering.”
The sentiment was echoed by Mireille Cronin Mather, Managing Director at the Foundation for Sustainable Development, who says the organization’s programs—which operate in places like the drought-ravaged deserts of Rajasthan—have doubled in size since last year. “People who suddenly find themselves between careers, or who want to give themselves a competitive edge for their next job,” she said, “realize that cultivating global development skills is really important.”
But that’s not the only reason people are devoting their “down time” to ecological causes these days. “This seems like a period where people are taking stock, in general,” said Bruce Kanarek, who runs volunteer programs for the Sierra Club in several U.S. national parks. “They’re realizing that instead of taking a vacation at a spa and turning their energy inward, it’s actually more rewarding to direct your energy back at the world.”
And some of these activities do require energy. On my Costa Rica excursion, we patrolled the beach for nearly two full nights without seeing a single turtle. But in the wee hours of the second night, our guide suddenly stopped us; just ahead of us, he whispered, was a female leatherback digging her nest in the sand. Creeping up slowly, we gathered behind the turtle—and when our guide turned on his dim red flashlight to illuminate her, we all gasped. She was monumental, as ancient-looking as a stegosaurus; her back flippers, scooping methodically into the sand, were the size of manhole covers. Soon, our guide murmured, she’d start to lay, and it would be our job to collect her 100-odd eggs for safekeeping in a hatchery, away from predators and the tide. He held out a plastic bag and a set of rubber gloves. Who, he asked, wanted to help “deliver” the turtle eggs?
I didn’t hesitate for a moment.