Whale watching volunteer doing research in an ecotourism project

  • Whale watching research volunteer: Ideal gap year for students of marine biology, marine ecology, oceanography or zoology
  • Take part in field research of humpback whales in the Pacific ocean
  • Develop experience in research data management and presentation

Project summary

Whale watching research volunteer, working as part of an ecotourism agency based in Mazatlan, Mexico. Their mission is to connect people with wildlife through unique experiences in nature. They achieve this by operating field trips and expeditions designed to serve as ‘platforms of opportunity’ for wildlife research and monitoring – using whale watching trips to get as many people as possible collecting data. The project also supports community conservation initiatives in the region.

A key aspect of their work is the long term monitoring of marine mammal species and populations. The area is an essential habitat for a diverse range of marine life, including sea turtles, sea lions, sharks, birds and many whale and dolphin species, including year round resident populations of bottlenose, spotted and spinner dolphins, plus a winter breeding ground for Pacific humpback whales.

From December through March, the projects operates whale watching excursions designed to document cetacean sightings, particularly humpback whales. On board, the team of marine scientists are supported by conservation enthusiasts who fund the operation, collect data on whale sightings and take photographs of the whales’ tails for individual identification. This technique, known as photo-identification, enables the team to record the natural history of individual whales and to understand fundamental aspects of their behavioural ecology like abundance, movements and habitat preferences.

The information collected is crucial for the implementation of conservation and management plans that are used to lobby local government on public policy, with the long term goal to establish a “shelter area” for humpback whales.

The whale watching volunteer project also provides training to local fisherman on disentanglements of dolphins and whales from their nets, as well as working with schools and the community to educate on environmental issues.

Volunteer roles and responsibilities

Whale watching volunteering will provide undergraduates and recent graduates with hands-on experience in the field of whale research and marine conservation. You will be directly involved with most aspects of long term research on cetaceans in the region, particularly humpback whales.

Research volunteers will be learning from and supporting the Research Officer in several tasks, but primarily assisting with data entry on logbooks and maintenance of cetacean photo-ID catalogues, reviewing and summarizing scientific data and the collection of sighting data and Photo-ID of whales.

Fieldwork is dependent on weather and seat availability on the whale watching boats. You can expect to be going out on the water about 1 to 2 times a week, sometimes more. Field days can be intense, especially in the peak of winter but are fulfilling and good fun! It will give you field experience in navigation, data collection and photo-identification of cetaceans. You might be expected to interact with tourists and to educate them about cetaceans, the marine environment and our work, as well as assist with other operational tasks.

You will also have opportunities to take part in other tours and expeditions performed by the agency, including sea kayaking, snorkelling, and sea turtle hatchling release, among others. Occasionally you will be asked to assist the team in other marine conservation tasks, like marine mammal strandings, whale disentanglements or educational outreach activities.

How you can make a difference

The area has a large fishing industry, a substantial commercial port and a growing tourist industry, all of which place significant pressure on the local marine environment. The economic and cultural challenges of Mexico mean that there is still a lack of awareness and policy around environmental threats, so by gathering data on the cetacean population, the projects helps inform government of the incredible natural resources they have and provides support to local policy development.

What is distinctive about this project

This is a progressive ecotourism agency that is innovating in the area of ‘platforms of opportunity’ – using the activity and funding of eco-tourists to enable a much higher level of monitoring activity than would otherwise be possible. As a whale watching research volunteer you will work with a small, knowledgeable and fun-loving team in an exciting environment.

Blue Tiger features

This is an established organisation, using Outreach International to help them access the support of volunteers for the first time. They are excited by the prospect of having a volunteer join their self-motivated, friendly and sociable team. Volunteers need to have a strong work ethic, good attention to detail and the ability to work with limited supervision.

Given the range of activities you will be involved in, it is important volunteers are in good physical condition, know how to swim and feel comfortable working at sea in hot and humid weather.


This role is specifically targeted at the winter months January-March, when the local area acts as a breeding ground for pacific humpback whales.


The project team speak good English or some English, however, some basic Spanish will help you in your dealings with visitors and other members of the community you will deal with, as well as making your leisure time more engaging.

Experience required:

Whale watching research volunteers should have an active interest in marine science and the role would particularly suit an undergraduate or recent graduate student in the field of marine biology, marine ecology, oceanography or zoology.

You will need to have a mature attitude towards marine mammal research and a genuine interest in marine conservation, ideally with the ability to teach and inspire an interest in the marine environment in others.

Good to know:

Working with the team will require flexible hours to accommodate the range of activities and may involve working weekends, but you are assured of being involved in an exciting and social team. This role is being promoted in parallel with another volunteer role, to help with the marketing and communications of the project.

Price table

8 weeks12 weeks

Includes: Comprehensive travel insurance (supplements may apply to older travellers). Accommodation, food, airport transfer, travel to projects, in-country support. One week of Spanish tuition, 121 or in a small group. Intern fee payable to the agency.

Excludes: Flights, visas, vaccinations

Things to see and do

  • Whale watching
  • Beaches
  • The Old Town

Country co-ordinator

Greta Ruiz

Greta lives close to our project base in Puerto Vallarta and has been working with us since 2006. She lived in London for three years where she completed her MSc in veterinary science. In addition to supporting our volunteers she now works as a Pilates instructor. She is brilliantly organised and works relentlessly to improve our programmes and offer support to the Mexico volunteers.

About Mexico