How to be a hero on your next vacation

Delve into nature and do some good while you’re at it

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By Sarah Sekula, published in Go Escape Magazine

Bringing my right hand up to my forehead, I make an L shape with my index finger and thumb in what is widely known as the international sign for loser. Today, as I explore Bonaire’s coral gardens, it has a new meaning.

In other words, I’ve spotted a lionfish, a highly attractive creature with venomous spikes and a Godzilla-like appetite. Hovering over a reef, I see one of the little buggers hiding under a craggy ledge. In a flash, Bas Noij, owner of VIP Diving, pulls out his spear gun, as the lionfish puffs its feathery fins, and snags the school-yard-bully of a fish.

Here’s the problem. The lionfish is an invasive species that can wipe out sea life on a reef in a few weeks. That’s why Noij offers a lionfish hunter specialty course ($179; vipdiving.com; offered year round) that teaches divers how to legally capture the creatures and help keep the reefs healthy.

“People find it very educational and thrilling at the same time,” he says. “And there is nothing better than eating a fresh caught fish straight out of the water.”

The fact that I got to track down the pesky critters made my time on the island that much more special. Plus, the next day I cleaned coral nurseries as part of Buddy Dive Resort’s coral restoration adventure dive ($65; buddydive.com; offered year round).

Finding your niche

Opportunities like these abound. The Ambassadors of the Environment Program in Cayman, for example, gives kids a behind-the-scenes look at the Blue Iguana Recovery Program ($115 ages 4-12; 13 and up $125; ritzcarlton.com; year round), which has helped bring the rare lizard back from the brink of extinction. Or hop over to Mexico to collect turtle eggs and bring them to a nearby sanctuary (price varies; playaviva.com: June-November).

If you have plans to visit the national parks this year, there are loads of citizen-science programs. During buffalo mating season in Yellowstone National Park, for example, you can be part of field studies ($435; yellowstone.org; July 30 – August 1) while learning about the biology and natural history of bison. Or, if you’re heading to the North Cascades National Park, bring your butterfly net. Through the Cascades Butterfly Project you can track changes in butterfly species distribution. Your job: Snap a detailed photo of a butterfly, record the GPS coordinates and upload your photo to butterfliesandmoths.org.

“Parks are living classrooms where people can have hands-on experiences with history, science, culture and nature,” says Susan Newton, senior vice president of grants and programs at the National Park Foundation.

“These programs are designed to not only collect important data, but also to help participants deepen their connection with the history, culture and natural elements of the parks. They might learn about a new species or learn about habitats in a new way.”

On the more physical side, volunteers with Maine Huts & Trails can attend work weekends (free; mainehuts.org; check website for dates) to prep trails for the summer and winter seasons or test out your green thumb through the Belize Organic Family Farming program ($50 per child, $70 per adult) where guests plant callaloo, corn, cassava and sweet potatoes for local families.

If you’d rather not sign up for a program, there are plenty of creative ways to help on your own. Follow the lead of Zane Kekoa Schweitzer, a pro surfer in Hawaii, who created the #pocketofplasticchallenge to encourage people to pick up debris wherever they are in the world.

“I’m on the road eight to 10 months out of the year,” says Schweitzer. “I always try to make it a point to give back to the environment by organizing beach cleanups.”

Spotlight on Antarctica

Want to contribute a bit further away from home? Book a trip to the Antarctic aboard Polar Latitudes (starting at $7,295; polar-latitudes.com; November-March) and help collect data on penguin populations and the surrounding glaciers.

“Sub-Antarctic penguin species are moving into the habitats of Antarctic species, simply because it’s getting warmer,” says Robert Gilmore, citizen science coordinator with Polar Latitudes. “Massive ice shelves are disintegrating on a scale and timeframe that has never been documented in human history. This is why we are doing what we can to understand the polar regions. Because it affects the rest of the world’s ecosystems.”