Become a Marine Research Volunteer on St. John

Learn about marine life and help conduct sea studies through a volunteer program at VIERS, a research facility in the U.S. Virgin Islands.


Cobey England is just 16 years old, but he’s partaking in a bit of history. As a certified scuba diver, he’s helping to plant underwater traps in a bay off St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where scientists are studying the 24-hour activity of parasites that feed off of fish. It’s an important study, considering that half of the world’s organisms are parasites and their activity is linked to global warming.

What’s the best part of the job? “Diving and seeing the fish,” says England. The downside? “It’s annoying to get back in the water at 10:30 at night, but that’s part of the job.”

Things could be worse.

England says his friends back home in Maryland are all complaining about being stuck in the cold while he’s off in the Virgin Islands. But here’s what they need to know: Volunteer your skills for four hours per day at the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station (VIERS), and receive free room and board.

A working vacation never sounded so good!

Experiential Education in the Tropics

VIERS is a research station on St. John operated by the non-profit organization, Clean Islands International, which focuses on cultivating sustainable practices and environmental awareness. VIERS’ funding is provided by Earthwatch Institute, the largest non-profit environmental volunteer organization in the world and a leader in experiential education.

Scientists from all walks of life visit VIERS to conduct tropical and marine research, including those from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which are studying fish movement, and California State University Northridge, which is monitoring coral reef changes. Other projects underway include sediment studies by the University of San Diego and a parasite study by Centre College in Kentucky. But for all its activities, the research station depends very much on volunteers like England.

“We have a very strong volunteer program,” says Jamie Irving, manager of VIERS, who says the research station also hosts school break and summer camps, programs for which it needs youth counselor volunteers. Kids’ counselors receive training from “real” scientists, so that camp education mirrors real life. “The overview is to instill curiosity, show what’s underneath the waves,” says Irving.

The Art of Science

Dr. Paul Sikkel from Centre College, who has been spearheading studies at VIERS for more than a decade, is a volunteer mentor. “We know so much more about the land than the ocean,” says Sikkel. He hopes that knowledge gained from the marine environment will benefit other ecosystems. He also hopes the volunteer and camp programs at VIERS will attract more youths to science. Sikkel tells of one donor that specifically encouraged art students to bring their creativity to VIERS; many of those art students then switched studies to science.

It’s clear that there’s a lot of art to science. Currently, Sikkel’s parasite study (in collaboration with the University of the Virgin Islands) is trying to determine whether, as fish habitats decline due to global warming, parasite loads will increase and put additional stress on fish. It took not just science, but also creativity to prompt Sikkel to set fish-and-parasite traps at differing times of the day, which helped him discover that young parasites feed early in the day and older, more experienced ones, at night.

There are always surprises in the world of science, and any given one might make a difference to our planet. Volunteer for a working vacation at VIERS and expect to, as Earthwatch says, “find out what you can do to change the world.”

Volunteering Details

Volunteers at VIERS are required to be 18 years of age, with exceptions made if traveling with a parent or guardian. Services needed include cleaning, weeding, painting and light carpentry, along with hiking guides, lifeguards and more. Complimentary lodging for volunteers is in rustic but comfortable cabins, and meals are free of charge. Apply well in advance as positions fill quickly. Contact Randy Brown at 410-647-2500 or

Destinations: U.S. Virgin Islands, Saint John

Themes: Ecotourism, Experiential Travel

Activities: Hiking, Scuba Diving

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