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Volunteer Researchers Discover Joy of Learning In Their 'Ideal' Vacation

November 02, 1987|GORDON SMITH

BAHIA DE LOS ANGELES, MEXICO — Sea turtle No. 14 was a fighter.

It had been hoisted out of its tank and placed on the ground prior to weighing. Now Brian Dunbar was trying to wrap the turtle in a net so that it could be suspended from a hook on a nearby scale.

But No. 14 didn't want any part of the procedure. It struggled frantically, as if trying to swim away.

Dunbar used most of his 200 pounds to pin the animal on the ground while another man wrapped the net around it. Only when the turtle was trussed and dangling helplessly from the scale's hook did it stop moving, and then it blinked indifferently, seemingly unimpressed at either the effort needed to subdue it or the 39 pounds it registered.

Dunbar stood up. "Geez, they're strong animals," he said, shaking his head.

All Work Volunteered

Weighing sea turtles was not exactly typical work for Dunbar, 30, an electrical engineer from Carson City, Nev. But he had journeyed nearly 1,000 miles to Bahia de Los Angeles, a rustic Mexican fishing village at the edge of the Gulf of California, specifically to do it.

Dunbar was part of a small group of Americans that had paid $450 to help Mexican scientist Antonio Resendiz care for and weigh the 40 sea turtles he keeps in captivity at a small beach camp north of the town. During their visit the volunteers also assisted Mexican scientist Horacio de Anda with research on the diet and mortality of sea lions.

The trip was arranged by the Foundation for Field Research, a nonprofit group based in Alpine. The foundation sponsors scientific research worldwide by charging people to help with the research (the cost depends on location, equipment needed and other factors); 75% of the money is then funneled to the scientists involved (the remainder goes for travel, food and administrative expenses).

"We're basically a granting agency," explained Tom Banks, 38, who helped organize the foundation in 1982 and serves as its treasurer. "Through the use of volunteers, we provide grants of equipment and funds to scientists."

The projects sponsored include everything from investigations of Indian rock art in the Arizona desert to studies of birds in the tropical forests of Belize. Banks said the foundation's seven-member board, which includes several scientists, selects the projects based on their scientific importance as well as their suitability for nonexpert volunteers.

No Shortage of Hardships

An average of two research trips are coordinated each month, nearly all of them to remote, wild areas where amenities are few and hardships abound.

For instance, the half-dozen people who participated in the trip to Bahia de Los Angeles had to live without electricity or telephones. A single pit toilet served the entire camp, and showers were taken by hanging up a plastic bag and letting the water inside trickle out a hose.

Temperatures approached 100 degrees daily, and the sun was both powerful and relentless. So what did these intrepid volunteers get in return?

No more than this:

The sight of a blazing orange sun rising over the blue-green expanse of the Sea of Cortez each morning, while the cries of shore birds mingled with the hoarse barks of sea lions far offshore;

The chance to visit unpopulated islands, skimming across the serene surface of the ocean in a small boat accompanied by pelicans, whales and sea lions;

The feeling of well being that came from knowing they'd done something--no matter how small--to help scientists learn more about the area's astounding diversity of wildlife.

"Here you're helping out a little bit, maybe doing some good. And the scientists are very dedicated," said Bill Buser, a retired engineer who formerly worked at the Naval Undersea Center, which has been incorporated into the Naval Ocean Systems Center.

"Besides, down here you don't have somebody's hand in your face all the time, and that's the way I feel when I'm in a hotel, where everyone expects a big tip," he added.

Buser had been to Baja California by car and sailboat. "But I still shouldn't be out here," he joked, referring to the heat. "Heck, I'm 71, and everyone else (on the trip) is a bunch of kids."

Keeping the Mind Active

From Buser's perspective, they were. But like him, they had come because they wanted to combine the relaxation of a vacation with aid for a scientific cause.

Gail Hansen, 36, a security guard on the Alaska pipeline, noted that when she flew from Prudhoe Bay to San Diego to join the foundation trip, she left behind windy, snowy, 26-degree weather. "You don't know how good this warm breeze feels," she said.

"I almost went to Hawaii for a vacation. But when you work in a construction-type environment like I do, you can become mentally lethargic. You need to do things to keep your mind active." She figured that learning about marine life while aiding the researchers in Bahia de Los Angeles would fit the bill nicely.

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