How ordinary travelers can become citizen scientists

Make your vacation count (phytoplankton).
citizen science vacation
On a tour with Exodus Adventure Travels in Portugal, a citizen scientist plunges water samples collected from a rural river through a filter to collect biological DNA that will be cataloged in the eBio Atlas in order to study biodiversity. Alisha McDarris

In Mondim de Basto, Portugal, travelers on a small group tour with Exodus Adventure Travels lean over a clear-as-glass river from a grassy bank, collecting water and squeezing it through a filter. When they’re done, that filter will be shipped off to a lab for analysis. The lab will catalog the DNA collected that indicates which species are found in local waterways–all in the name of filling gaps in global biodiversity data.

On an expedition off the coast of Greenland, cruisers on the small HX (formerly Hurtigruten Expeditions) ship peer over the edge of a zodiac, watching for the moment as a white disk disappears beneath the waves so they can take a depth measurement and submit it using an app to scientists who can then study phytoplankton.

[ Related: How to become a citizen scientist—and when to leave it to the professionals ]

None of the individuals collecting this data are professional scientists; just ordinary travelers with a fierce curiosity and desire to leave the far-flung places they visit better than they found them by participating in citizen science. Data collection isn’t just for researchers–travelers are often perfectly suited to help bolster the dearth of data to be documented across scientific disciplines around the world.

While the term citizen science may sound amateur (how much reliable information can individuals without doctorates in chemistry or biology even contribute?), the areas of scientific study that utilize information gathered by everyday individuals span the gamut, from environmental science to marine biology.

And the data non-scientists are able to provide often proves invaluable.

In fact, one study showed that citizen-collected scientific data contributes, or could potentially contribute, to 40 percent of United Nations Sustainable Development goals. It offers grassroots organizations and small operations a way to access centralized knowledge, which is paramount in modern scientific communities and informs peer-reviewed studies and results in meaningful research.

One study from 2021 utilized citizen-collected data to help inform a paper on ocean transparency while another study from 2023 utilized publicly-collected data to study and report on algae blooms in natural waterways.

How does your summer vacation fit in? Seamlessly.

“We are privileged enough to spend a lot of time in extremely remote areas where conducting scientific research has very high costs and is often prohibitive for some scientists,” explains Marcos Goldin, geologist and citizen science coordinator at sustainably-minded expedition cruise line Aurora Expeditions.

So citizen science provides a way to collect and share data from not just easily-reachable fields of study, but across the globe, including in often underrepresented, neglected or hard-to-reach parts of the world where the greatest data gaps tend to exist. In short, travel, especially the kind that involves going off-the-beaten track, is the perfect excuse to collect and record meaningful data.

Learn while you play

But the value this information brings to the scientific community isn’t all citizen science projects are good for. “These programs also create unique opportunities for education, enhancing travelers’ understanding of the unique regions and ecosystems that we often visit, and their importance to the overall health of our planet,” Goldin says, referring to the social and environmental benefits that travel can have.

“There’s something about being on holiday and being an active participant and understanding your role as an individual that allows you to have a deeper connection to the community and places you visit,” says Rochelle Turner, head of sustainability at Exodus Adventure Travels, a tour company that offers a number of trips with a strong citizen science component. One includes collaborating with NatureMetrics in partnership with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to collect water samples in several destinations. The results from the samples feed into the eBioAtlas, a world-wide biodiversity database that maps the distribution of species around the world.

That database is made available to researchers and conservationists–locally and around the world–to help inform land and water management, provide a blueprint for healthy ecosystems, and update the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, highlight key biodiversity areas, and more.

Likewise, several small expedition cruises like Aurora Expeditions and HX offer science programs on their ships, everything from micro plastics studies in the arctic to whale or bird identification, many of which tend to add meaning to a trip and foster a closer connection to nature, highlighting why it needs to be protected and ultimately transform a destination, Turner says.

“We are all becoming increasingly more aware that travel is about much more than just visiting a new place,” adds Goldin. “We believe responsible travel should not only seek to respect the destination’s environment, but should also aim to make positive contributions and leave the place better than when we found it.”

Travelers are also able to see the results of their efforts, either in the reports Exodus sends to guests post-trip, by viewing phytoplankton under a microscope in the lab, or via regular updates when spotted wildlife makes an appearance somewhere else in the world.

Find a citizen science experience

Fortunately, more and more travel brands, from Linblad Expedition cruises to Intrepid Travel tours, offer citizen science departures in places ranging from polar regions to the Amazon.. Many sustainably-minded companies put citizen science projects front and center in their marketing, so they’re not hard to find.

I can do science all by myself

That said, you don’t need to book a dedicated tour or cruise to participate in citizen science projects when you travel. To contribute to many databases, all you need is your phone: There are many apps available for free that walk you through the process of logging information on everything from clouds to birds to whales.

Other projects, like collecting phytoplankton readings using a Secchi Disk, may require a few more tools.

[ Related: You can help measure the ocean’s health with this homemade gadget ]

If you are going it on your own, make sure to read instructions carefully and follow them to the letter. Most apps will walk you through the process. Then, use them as often as you like while you travel.

“By engaging in Citizen Science, we can truly create a positive impact for the places we visit and their future protection,” says Goldin.