“What are you doing going to Miami? You’ll be sent home by Saturday,” said the Toronto-based customs officer. It was Thursday morning and I was headed to the Florida Keys to check out a few organizations that offer volunteer opportunities. Unfortunately, there was a hurricane in the forecast. Sure enough, by Saturday morning, all non-residents were ordered to evacuate. Luckily I managed to check out a few places before I was sent packing.
Voluntourism, a term that describes the act of volunteering while on vacation, is on the rise. In fact, studies have shown that volunteering can result in greater life expectancy and lower rates of depression. For the many Canadians who call Florida “home” for the winter or even those who head down for a little short-term vitamin D, volunteering can provide a break from the usual itinerary while bringing visitors up close and personal with nature. My visit focused on the Florida Keys, a 120-mile-long chain of islands that is teeming with wildlife (both aquatic and land-dwelling) and tropical vegetation.
Save aquatic mammals
The three-acre lot where the Marine Mammal Conservancy is situated is a little hard to find off the U.S. 1 Overseas Highway. However, if this non-profit organization needs help with mammals in distress, a sign out front shows visitors the way. Volunteers both young and old have spent their vacations soothing stranded whales, cooking for rescue teams and helping out wherever they’re needed. Perennial volunteer and groundskeeper Gerhard Besserer says he can teach anyone what to do during a whale rescue within five minutes.
Help regenerate the coral reef
The Florida Keys is home to North America’s only living coral reef. But like others in the world, it is in danger. Ken Nedimyer founder of the Coral Restoration Foundation started experimenting with growing the Staghorn and Elkhorn coral that is vital to the reef’s survival. Visitors who are certified scuba divers can participate in one- or two-day workshops that involve classroom time in the morning followed by a dive in the afternoon. Volunteers help in the coral “nurseries” where the regenerated coral can be harvested and then “re-planted” on the reef.
Dig in a tropical garden
If staying on dry land and working in a traditional garden is more your speed, the Kona Kai Resort Gallery & Botanic Gardens has developed a volunteer program for gardening enthusiasts. Visitors can stay at this picturesque resort and devote part of their holiday to getting their hands dirty with a variety of tropical flora that in Canada only survive as houseplants.
Zero in on a volunteer opportunity
Before you go, visit the Government of Canada’s Travel and Tourism website to see if there are any rules or paperwork associated with your volunteer program of choice.
- The Florida Keys has created a special volunteer website that lists current opportunities.
- The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary lists several volunteer programs from collecting data on fish to working in a wild bird rehabilitation centre.
- For opportunities all over the world, including Canada and the U.S., visit websites like GoVoluntouring.com. Handy search filters help you narrow down your options by location, cost, even ideal age.