Destination

people aboard a large motorboat tied to a dock

I’ve always found volunteering abroad a nice way to travel and ”do something different”.

I don’t do it often enough, but over the years I’ve volunteered in quite a few different countries, with a range of organizations.

It had been several years though. So when I received an email from Biosphere Expeditions saying they had one spot left for their next volunteer program in the Azores, it was an easy ”yes”.

Not in the least because I have such fond memories of the Azores from when I sailed around the islands a couple of years ago.

And, I love the ocean and marine conservation, so volunteering with whales and dolphins sounded great to me!

In this article I’d like to share my honest review of 10 days of volunteering with Biosphere Expedition. It was a great experience but as with any volunteer work, there are pros and cons.

If you’re thinking about volunteering abroad, and specifically about joining this project, I hope my review will give you an idea of whether this is for you or not.

Volunteering in the Azores – Dolphin & Whale Conservation

The boat used for this volunteer project

Every spring, before most tourists travel to the Azores, Biosphere Expeditions organizes their volunteer program in the Azores.

The program is based on the island of Faial, in my favorite town, Horta.

As a volunteer you’ll spend most of your time aboard a catamaran research vessel, photographing and recording various cetacean species. This includes sperm, blue, fin, Sei, humpback, and minke whales, as well as bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins.

There are still a lot of unknowns around the behavior and migration patterns of these whales and dolphins, which is what this project helps to collect data for.

Through collaboration with international institutions and experts, the collected data contributes to a broader understanding of cetacean species’ movements and behaviors in the wider Atlantic region.

Note: if sea conditions allow and if you happen to spot loggerhead turtles, you may also assist in capturing, measuring, tagging, and releasing these turtles as part of an international tagging program. This didn’t happen during my volunteer project though.

What Will You Do as a Volunteer

3 people on a boat, 1 writing something, 1 looking at a gps and 1 standing in the background
2 volunteers collecting data

As a volunteer you’re helping the local scientist, Lisa, collect and process data.

We were a group of 10 volunteers during my trip, which is the number Biosphere Expeditions aims for.

The volunteer experience starts with at least one day ashore, where Lisa and the expedition leader teach you about the different jobs volunteers will have and the research tools used on the boat.

One of the things I liked about this volunteer project is that you are assigned a different job every day. That means every day you’re doing something different and are learning something new.

Don’t worry, they’re not particularly difficult jobs and the scientist and expedition leader are always there to assist.

Jobs range from measuring the water temperature to writing down details of each animal sighting or taking photographs of the whales and dolphins you spot.

On day 2, if the weather allows it and once everyone has a basic idea of their first job on the boat, it’s time to go out to sea!

What a Day at Sea Looks Like

5 people on the bow of a boat looking out at sea
Trying to find whales and dolphins

If the weather cooperates you’ll spend six days at sea collecting data.

A short walk from the accommodation (more on that later) takes you to the marina.

Now, don’t expect anything fancy, you’re on a research expedition, not a whale-watching vacation! But, the boat you’ll be spending your time at sea on is a sturdy one with strong engines that will get you to any whales or dolphins in the area safely.

Interesting Fact: Back in the days, the Azores were known for hunting whales. They used vigias (lookouts) who would sit on high points on the islands using strong binoculars to spot whales. Nowadays this same system of vigias, with more modern equipment, is still used to help spot whales.

The fact that vigias are used means you are much more likely to find whales and dolphins. Almost all the whales we saw during our volunteer program, which were multiple per day, were spotted by a vigia first who then contacted our skipper.

a close-up of a dolphin swimming towards the camera
The day we saw these Risso’s dolphins, my job was to photograph them

Simply put your days at sea look like this: you’ll be on the boat from 9am until 4pm trying to find whales and dolphins. Your job might be that of lookout, which means you’ll be standing on a corner keeping an eye out for any strange movement you see in the water, hoping it’s a whale or dolphin. Or, you might be the one collecting data either on paper or in an app which means that as soon as a whale or dolphin has been spotted you’ll be noting down a range of details about the sighting.

Once enough data has been collected or when you lose sight of the whales (they dive for long periods of time and can therefore reappear far out of sight), the boat will move on, in search of other whales and dolphins to collect data on.

Non-Sea Days

4 people staring at computer screens showing pictures of whales
Data processing at the guesthouse

Out of the 10 days of volunteering, 1 day is scheduled as a non-sea day dedicated to data processing, and one day is a day off.

On the day of data processing you’ll help sort out all the pictures that have been taken of the whales and dolphins.

Various tools are used to try to match different pictures. For sperm whales, one of the main species studied here, the tail fin (called the fluke) is used to identify different individuals.

There are databases with large numbers of fluke photographs that are used to find out if the same individual shows up in different parts of the world (which they often do) or returns to the same place.

During our volunteer project, on the last day actually, we managed to get a good picture of several sperm whale flukes and one was matched to a picture taken in the Azores as well, in 1988! And on that same day we also managed to match a blue whale that was seen in the same area in 2018 and 2023.

It’s nice to see that the days out at sea produce usable data!

Note: if the weather is bad and doesn’t allow going out to sea, extra data processing time might be added.

Other Activities While Volunteering

A city park with various trees, paths and bright red benches
Horta, the town where the volunteer program is based

Although the main goal, and the most fun part, of this volunteer program is of course to spend as much time out at sea as possible spotting whales and dolphins, there is time left in the days for other things as well.

Most days you’ll be back in port no later than 4pm and dinner isn’t until 7pm. Unless you had one of the jobs on the boat that requires some processing afterward, which is only 2 of the 10 jobs, you’re free to spend your afternoon the way you like.

Horta is a cute town worth exploring, and often some of the volunteers will get together for a drink somewhere. Or just relax, because being on the boat all day is quite tiring.

On three nights group dinners are arranged in local restaurants, and on some of the other nights presentations are given after dinner at the accommodation.

A woman with a laptop sitting next to a tv, giving a presentation about whales
One of the presentations we received while volunteering

The presentations help explain a bit more about the research that’s done on whales, what the data we collect is used for, and what Biosphere Expeditions does.

Then there is one day you’ll have off which is a great time to explore the rest of the island. Rent a car with some of the other volunteers and just drive around, because the island is beautiful!

Where Will You Live

The exterior of a modern looking white building with the sea in the background
Our guesthouse
A livingroom with a large, l-shaped black couch and small table
Our shared livingroom

I have to say, this might have been the most comfortable accommodation I’ve had in all my volunteer experiences!

For the duration of the volunteer program Biosphere Expeditions rents a nice guesthouse in Horta. It’s about a 15-minute walk to the marina and the town center.

They rent the whole guesthouse which means it’s only you, the other volunteers, and the expedition leader sharing what feels like a really comfortable, well-maintained house.

A bedroom with 2 single beds, a chair, a mirros and a large window with sea view
Twin room with a view

Note: if you sign up for this volunteer program alone you will normally share a twin room with one other person. You cannot pay a supplement to guarantee a single room.

Tasks in the House

A long table with wooden chairs and a pink tablecloth with a kitchen in the background
The kitchen and dining area

Unlike other volunteer projects I’ve been on, cleaning and cooking tasks here are, thankfully, very easy.

All food is provided during the volunteer project and two people are in charge of breakfast every day, on a rotating schedule. Breakfast tasks are simple though. One of you goes to the bakery to pick up some fresh bread while the other sets the table, gets things like cereal, jams, cheese, fruit, etc. out, and makes some coffee.

Tip: if you want to score points, offer to make some scrambled eggs for your fellow volunteers when you’re on breakfast duty 😉

Lunch you’ll have while you’re on the boat, so everyone prepares a sandwich for themselves after breakfast and brings it with them.

Dinner we had to cook ourselves once (a simple pasta did the trick) but on other nights dinner was provided by local catering services. That meant all we had to do was get out some plates and cutlery and load up the dishwasher after dinner.

I don’t know if I was lucky with my group of volunteers or if Biosphere Expeditions just always attracts responsible, sensible people, but we never needed a cleaning roster or had any issues with people making a mess. Everyone seemed happy to help out with setting the table or cleaning up after dinner.

And, there was a cleaning lady as well, who took care of the rest and made sure we always came home to a perfectly clean place after a day at sea.

Other Useful Things to Know About This Volunteer Project

1. The Weather

houses and boats as seen from the water with a green hill in the background
Leaving the marina on a sunny morning

Possibly the most important thing you’ll have to know about coming to the Azores in spring, which is when Biosphere Expeditions runs their volunteer project, is that the weather is unpredictable.

I love the Azores, but the weather just doesn’t always cooperate.

It can be rainy, windy, and just very changeable. If it’s expected to rain you might still go out on the boat so bring good waterproof clothing!

If it’s too windy of course you simply can’t safely go out. So that’s when sea days get canceled or cut short.

2. Add a Few Days Before or After the Project

blue flowers on top of a hill with the coastline with several houses and a lot of greenery in the background
The island of Faial

The Azores are quite a unique group of islands. And every island is different and in my opinion worth visiting.

On your one day off during the volunteer project you can explore Faial, the island you are on. I’d argue you need more than one day to get to know the island, but it’s not a big island so you can see most of it in one day.

I do highly recommend adding a few days before or after the project to visit one or more other islands. While you’re here it would be a shame not to see a bit more of this unique archipelago of volcanic islands.

Tip: if you need a place to stay in Horta before or after the volunteer project, check out Pousada Forte da Horta. It’s a hotel inside a 16th-century fort!

3. A Wide Age Range

A group of people posing for a photograph on a boat with a marina in the background
Our group

Some volunteer programs attract mainly younger people, including students taking a gap year.

That’s not the case with Biosphere Expeditions. Our group ranged from under 20 to over 70, and I believe the average age of a Biosphere Expeditions volunteer is somewhere in the 40s.

So although you’ll of course never know who signs up for the same volunteer program as you, most likely you’ll be in a very mixed age group.

4. Share Your Pictures

the tale of a whale coming out of the water
The fluke of a sperm whale

This is something I learned during the volunteer project and just wanted to share with you. Even if you don’t join this volunteer program, you can still share whale and dolphin pictures!

Two of the resources used to try and identify whales and dolphins are Happywhale and Flukebook. And these two websites are open to anyone.

So that means that if you’ve ever seen whales or dolphins anywhere, and managed to catch them on camera, your pictures might be useful to help identify them!

If you think you may have useful pictures, have a look at those two websites to see if you can help.

Pros of This Whale & Dolphin Volunteer Project

1. No Experience Required

2 women holding a map on a boat speaking to other people sitting around them
Debriefing on the boat

If you have an interest in marine conservation or just want to try something different but have no relevant experience, don’t worry.

You don’t need any prior experience to join this volunteer project. Everything you need to know you’ll learn in the first couple of days of the project. And, the scientist and expedition leader are always there to help.

I found that the different jobs on the boat are quite well documented (the slightly more complicated ones come with handy cheat sheets) and everyone got the hang of their ”job of the day” quite quickly.

Note: there are also no age limits to join this volunteer program.

2. Comfortable Accommodation

Biosphere Expeditions has several volunteer projects in different countries and depending on location, accommodation options really vary.

There’s a volunteer program that has you sleep in tents in the desert (which I personally think will be a great experience as well). But if that’s not your thing, then you’ll love the comfort of the accommodation in the Azores.

Ok maybe don’t expect 5-star luxury, but it’s really a very comfortable, well-maintained guesthouse.

3. A Well Run Volunteer Program

Pictures of whales, dolphins and birds, with a table of information about them
All the animal sightings during the volunteer program

From the pre-arrival information to the initial training and the evening presentations, it’s all quite well organized and shows that real thought has gone into the volunteer program.

Biosphere Expeditions is also quite transparent about where the money goes, which I really appreciate. Within a few months after the end of the volunteer program an expedition report is created. This includes details on how the money you pay for this volunteer project was spent.

Of course, in 10 days you only contribute a tiny bit to a much larger, long-term research. But, both the money you pay and the data collected do help to further this research.

4. A Great Diversity of Volunteers

A group of people on a boat facing away from the camera

I really loved being in such a diverse group of volunteers. And not just diverse in age but also in nationality and background.

We had a young student, several retired people with great life stories, and working professionals taking time off to come and volunteer.

I’ve had so many great conversations in those 10 days and love how this program exposes you to different people you might not otherwise have connected with.

5. Volunteers Return

Half of our group had been on previous Biosphere expeditions!

I would say that says a lot about how people feel about these volunteer programs.

6. Horta is Such a Nice Town

Aerial view of a bay with a beach, hills and a town in the background

I can’t recommend visiting the Azores enough. And I particularly love Horta.

With its quaint charm, friendly locals, and laid-back atmosphere, Horta to me feels like a great escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Plus, the rest of the island with its green hills and stunning cliffs is beautiful as well.

Cons of This Whale & Dolphin Volunteer Project

1. Unpredictable Weather

The biggest downside for me is that the weather in the Azores is just not the best in spring.

And unpredictable weather means the boat might not be able to go out every day.

Each 10-day volunteer program plans to have six sea days. But, if you are unlucky with the weather you might end up with fewer days out on the boat.

We were reasonably lucky and had 5.5 sea days, but other groups this year had fewer days.

Of course everyone really wants to go out on the boat so Lisa and the skipper try their hardest to make it work, even if it means leaving a bit earlier or only doing a half day to make use of any acceptable weather conditions.

But be flexible, because nobody can guarantee good weather and calm, sunny days out at sea.

2. Seasickness

With unpredictable weather also comes an unpredictable sea state.

We had a couple of calm days out at sea, but most days it got quite choppy and I therefore highly recommend taking seasickness tablets, EVERY DAY! Even if the weather looks great in the morning.

Although our group was good at staying positive about it all, we did have several people who got seasick.

And even as someone who spent several years living on a sailboat, I felt a bit uncomfortable on two occasions as well.

My best advice is to have a good breakfast and keep looking at the horizon while you’re on the boat. And take those seasickness tablets at least 20 minutes before getting onto the boat.

3. No Guarantees

A close-up of 2 dolphins

You’ll be spending long days on the boat and there’s no guarantee you’ll see whales or dolphins.

We were very lucky though, we saw several whales every day and dolphins on all but one day!

Also, I think we’ve all seen those great pictures of whales breaching right next to a boat… Don’t expect that!

Boats in the Azores have to keep their distance from the whales and of course especially as a research vessel, that’s a rule that will be obeyed. Sure, in theory a whale could accidentally come up after a dive close to the boat, but that’s not very likely.

Most of the time you’ll be at least 50 meters (164 feet) away from any whale.

Dolphins are a different story though, they often love to come up to the boat to ”bowride” (swim around the front of the boat), which is a great sight!

And, even from 50 meters away, seeing especially those giant blue whales, the largest animals on earth, is an unforgettable experience!

4. The Volunteer Program Is Only 10 Days

Honestly, I’m not sure if this should go under pros or cons.

Before I joined the project I thought 10 days was quite short, especially because some of the other volunteer projects I’ve done were significantly longer.

I decided to list it under cons because of course the longer you stay, the more you can contribute. Now they have to train new volunteers every 10 days, which means less time to collect and process data, and less experienced volunteers.

But, I’d also say 10 days makes it accessible to more people. Not everyone has the time and money to join a month-long volunteer program. And 10 days gives you a good impression of the work that is carried out here, and enough time to get the hang of things and experience different jobs.

Plus, if you want to stay longer you can join 2 or 3 programs back-to-back.

5. You’re Volunteering With an NGO

A woman standing on a boat writing something in a notebook
Collecting data on paper

I’ve found this with every NGO I’ve volunteered with: funds are limited and you can always find things that could be done more efficiently, could be modernized, etc.

And you could definitely argue that working with constantly changing volunteers is not the most efficient way to collect data. But, without the volunteers, and yes, the money they contribute, the boat wouldn’t be able to go out in spring and no data would be collected at all.

6. Price

”You’re volunteering your time, shouldn’t it therefore be free to join?”

Well, yes, I have volunteered for free in the past. But that meant traveling to the country first, making local connections, finding my own accommodation, and then volunteering my time at a local organization.

Like most other volunteer programs you can book abroad, they organize accommodation for you, food is included and you’re ready to start as soon as you arrive. That comes at a cost.

Plus, in this case of course don’t forget the quite significant cost of keeping the boat running!

Currently Biosphere Expeditions charges 1990 Euros for their 10-day volunteer program.

That makes it their most inexpensive volunteer program and is in line with similar volunteer projects offered by other organizations. 

So although it’s not the cheapest way to travel to the Azores, I’d say the price is fair.

Also Read: How to Find the Cheapest Flights

About Biosphere Expeditions

Biosphere Expeditions, established in 1999, is a small non-profit research and conservation organization offering various volunteer projects in different countries.

Their mission is to promote sustainability by engaging volunteers in meaningful wildlife conservation and research efforts worldwide.

Their expeditions aim to empower volunteers to make a tangible impact while providing them with fulfilling and enjoyable experiences.

Unlike wildlife vacations, Biosphere Expeditions’ projects are genuine research expeditions, guided by principles of good citizen science and ethical volunteering.

Their projects have had measurable results and achieved great goals in various places, including the establishment of protected areas on four continents.

The duration of their volunteer projects is generally between one and two weeks, and they offer a changing number of volunteer programs in different destinations worldwide.

For more information about their volunteer project in the Azores, click here.

Why Volunteer Abroad & My Final Thoughts

People walking on a cobblestone street with the sea and mountains in the background
Walking from the guesthouse to the boat on our last day

I honestly think volunteering abroad is a great way to travel.

You get to experience a new destination in a different, more meaningful way. You have the opportunity to contribute to the local community or to local research. You’ll most likely gain some new skills, and gain a much better understanding of local life than if you were just visiting as a tourist.

Not all volunteer projects are great though, which is why I do recommend reading my article about why you should or shouldn’t volunteer abroad. Not all volunteer projects benefit or respect the local community.

But, Biosphere Expeditions is a genuine NGO, trying to strike a balance between keeping the volunteer projects appealing to travelers and providing real help where needed.

I enjoyed my time volunteering in the Azores. I feel like I’ve learnt something new, contributed a little, and met some great people. So yes, I can definitely recommend this volunteer project!

If you want to know more about what my days in the Azores looked like, I’ve shared daily videos and pictures on Instagram which you can find in my highlighted stories.

Also Read:

  • Volunteering Abroad: Why You Should or Shouldn’t Do It
  • What is Ecotourism & How Can You Become a More Sustainable Traveler
  • Why You Shouldn’t Take Shells From the Beach or Buy Them as Souvenirs
  • Volunteering in the Philippines With Marine Conservation Philippines

 
Disclaimer: my volunteer program with Biosphere Expeditions was sponsored. As always though, all opinions are my own and I would never recommend anything I didn’t enjoy. This article contains affiliate links. I may receive a commission for purchases made through these links, at no additional cost to you.

 

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