What are citizen science holidays?

On a quiet tributary to the River Douro in Portugal, you might find a small group of holidaymakers crouching down on a bridge made of stepping stones. They’re collecting water in a large plastic bag for testing.

You might have heard of travellers doing a spot of whale photography or dolphin counting on holiday, as a fun way of contributing to local research, but water sampling – glorified pond dipping? Surely that’s not exciting at all.

But water contains hidden depths. Push just two litres of river water through a filter, and you’ll get enough DNA evidence on the filter to identify every animal that has recently swam in, drank from, or even flown over that water – and all the water within a kilometre radius.

A two-litre sample can return evidence of some 70-80 vertebrates – everything from fish, birds and reptiles to deer and wolves.

It’s testament to the amazing breakthroughs in the global scientific community that have sequenced this environmental DNA to begin with. It’s also testament to the tenacity of teams who want to set up data collection projects like this. “One of the trickiest bits is getting permissions from the government,” explains Rochelle Turner, head of sustainability at our partner Exodus Adventure Travels. “There were quite a lot of protocols with regards to sending DNA across borders.”

As part of their commitments to supporting nature restoration in their destinations, and to respond to a rising interest in citizen science holidays, Exodus Adventure Travels has incorporated water testing on selected departures on some of their adventurous small group holidays.

You’ll find testing everywhere from icy Finland, where you’ll need to drill through a frozen lake with a fisherman’s ice auger, to the rivers that flow through a Portuguese wine region, to Uzbekistan and Indochina.
It felt like you were in a fairy tale but doing this bit of science – helping the local community felt great too.

A Finland wonderland

Wading waist-deep through snow, you’re not that likely to run into wildlife. There are the reindeer, the birds – maybe the odd rabbit sporting a white winter coat in Finland. Footprints hint at what else could be here. A freshwater sample from a snowy-banked running river tells a richer story.

Sarah Hibbert went on our citizen science trip in Finland in late March, taking samples from a river and from under the ice on Juuma Lake, next to the lodge where they stayed, close to the Russian border. Here, on the border of Oulanka National Park, Siberian, Arctic and south Finland species, including some of Finland’s rarest wildlife, converge.

“The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has said that one in nine species in Finland is threatened,” says Sarah, “so it will be really interesting to see which animals we spot – and which are on the threatened list.”

Let’s say a sample from a Finnish lake shows the presence of arctic fox in the area, or landlocked salmon – just two of Finland’s threatened species. This would provide compelling evidence that the region should be carefully managed. “If we can start gathering data on wildlife, we can put more information into the hands of people who are able to preserve it,” says Rochelle.

The water filters, produced by a company called NatureMetrics, are sent back to their lab, where they are tested for the environmental DNA of different vertebrates. “But the data can be analysed and re-analysed,” Rochelle explains. “Any other organisation can go back and test again for algae or invertebrates.”

The results go to the IUCN. This United Nations body is building an atlas of every species that lives near freshwater called the eBioAtlas. Travellers will receive the results, too, a couple of months after the trip.

What is citizen science?

Citizen science empowers people who don’t have a ‘doctor’ prefix in their name to contribute to serious research. It’s sometimes called ‘community science’ – for places where the word ‘citizen’ is seen as exclusionary.

Citizen science might sound like Marvel scraping the barrel of lesser-known superheroes for their next franchise, but it’s about harnessing people power, not superpowers, to get scientific data. The data gathered by members of the public would be hard for scientists to collect alone – because of the size of the sample needed, or because of remote and expensive regions like Antarctica are more readily accessible by tourists than researchers.

Citizen scientists are, by their definition, unpaid hobbyists with spare time on their hands. This is something that working people in the local community don’t always have. “As a traveller you have a huge, amazing opportunity to see the world – but there’s a responsibility that comes with that,” says Rochelle.

Alongside wildlife tracking and wildlife photography, citizen science is another way to feel engaged with the natural environment. It can be done as part of a research trip – or as a small scientific interlude in an ordinary holiday.

Data collection can bring a destination to life in surprising ways. Take clouds: NASA’s citizen science programme asked for photographs and descriptions of clouds all over the world, timed so they could be corroborated by imaging from with their satellites. Polar cruises often incorporate cloud recording, for want of a participating local population, but observations can be made wherever you travel. Cloud measurements make that ominous cumulous blocking the sun on your beach break interesting, rather than just oppressive. There are 410 citizen scientists currently co-authored on NASA’s scientific publications.

Hidden science

Citizen science is common on our holidays, but it isn’t always labelled. A small element of data collection tends to get eclipsed in trips where you could see hundreds of whales lolling in the waves or find yourself face to face with a tiger. “The science element within our citizen science trips is just a small part of the overall adventure,” explains Rochelle.

Our partners have been doing citizen science for years. Take the Dolphin and Whale Connection in the Azores, who take whale researchers on their trips, and run holidays where your photographs are added to a photo ID database of whales to better understand local cetacean populations.

Many of our partners have seen a rise in interest in trips with a conservation element.

“More people are interested in tours that give back, especially post Covid. People want to be a bit more involved – be more hands on,” says Leonie Taylor, from our partner Wayfairer Travel. Daughter of a keen birder, citizen science was part of her childhood in Uganda. “I remember spending a Christmas doing great crested crane counts around the country.” 

Uganda wildlife tours include taking tiny groups out to monitor lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park, so that behaviour data can contribute to researchers’ databases.

“We’ve just done a conservation cruise,” says Ruth Franklin, co-founder of our Maldives partner, Secret Paradise. “In November 2022, it was the first trip of its kind and it was focused on conservation. We had someone from a whale shark trust on board and someone from the seagrass meadows project joined us. We did data collection on whale sharks. Our guests saw manta rays, they did a beach clean, there was lots of snorkelling. We’ll run it again next year.”

The Polar Citizen Science Collective is a charity which works with companies such as our small group tour specialist, Intrepid, to get data in expensive and difficult to access polar regions.

Intrepid has a full citizen science programme for its polar trips. Research has ranged from measuring phytoplankton levels to seabird surveys in the Southern Ocean, whale identification and cloud observations. On an Antarctic cruise with the World Wildlife Fund you’ll collect data – then watch, astounded, as scientists attach non-invasive recording devices to whales via suction cups. This measures their location and speed – whilst two cameras show you a whale’s-eye view of the underwater world. A similar device measured a wild blue whale’s heartbeat for the first time in 2019.

Fantastic tech

“Citizen science is revolutionising research and conservation-based measures around the world,” says Martin Royle, founder and director of our specialised wildlife watching partner, Royle Safaris. On their trips, rare animal sightings made by guests in areas like the Western Sahara are handed over to researchers, contributing to taxonomic studies and population monitoring.

The rising profile of conservation comes at a time when technological advances make mass data collection a breeze. Smartphones mean people can connect directly with scientific organisations and upload information to databases from remote locations – the perfect conditions for a profusion of citizen science across the world.

When Abbie, our Travel Team specialist, went on a trip to the Antarctic she was invited to submit photographs of fluking whales and their dorsal fins to Happywhale, a citizen science initiative that tracks whales for fun and for science. Happywhale uploads its data weekly to OBIS-SEAMAP, the world data centre for marine mammal, seabird, sea turtle, shark and ray distributions.

“Towards the end of the trip, one of the guides had the website set up and you could go straight to them and upload your photos there and then,” says Abbie.

With better technological connections comes better connection with wildlife. The IUCN’s eBioAtlas freshwater data will be shared with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), a biodiversity database which now has over two billion records, making it one of the largest in the world. Anyone can access GBIF and find out what wildlife has been found in their local park or near their next holiday spot.

From the rigorous to the ridiculous

“If my wife – who is an ecologist – went on some trips, she’d not be sure of the validity of the sampling,” says one of our travel specialists.

Scientific contribution is only half the story. Citizen science is as much about getting people interested in science, and engaged with nature, as it is about collecting meaningful results.

On an Arctic cruise via icebreaker last year, our travel specialist described taking it in turns to measure water transparency using a Secchi disk. “You sling it into the ocean and measure at what point you can’t see it anymore.” This determines phytoplankton levels in the water.

In the land of polar bears and walruses, algae rarely make anyone’s top 10 wildlife encounters. Yet, queues formed: “People get quite excited by the prospect of lying down on an ice floe and chucking this disk into the water. From a scientific standpoint, you only need to do it once. But we did it 60 times,” they said.

Doing the science for yourself fosters a sense of personal responsibility – a gain that is as important as any results. To anyone who says tourists are only interested in turtles, or don’t care about science – show them 60 bundled up travellers queuing to look at phytoplankton.

Local involvement

Citizen science doesn’t just engage guests. On our trips to Finland and Portugal, the guides were as interested as the travellers. “A lot of them are nature guides,” says Rochelle. “They’re very, very aware of issues with biodiversity in the region – they know getting this information is really important for protection and for greater understanding of what else lives where they live.”

Citizen science is for citizens of the world – there should be no barriers for who gets to participate.

“The beauty of it is that anyone can do it,” says Rochelle. “Once you’ve got yourself a water testing kit, anybody can go to a water system and test it, so that we can build a knowledge base for future generations.”
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Citizen science or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Citizen science tasks on holiday

You could be taking photographs to upload to a database. There are local databases, such as the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme’s Big Fish Network, or ones with global reach, like eBird, an online database of bird observations.

You could take samples – such as freshwater samples for DNA checks, undertaken with NatureMetrics and the IUCN’s eBioAtlas.

You could take measurements – such as using a Secchi disk to measure water transparency. You could also be enlisted to counting phenomena: contributing to the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch or the Southern Ocean Seabird Count in the Antarctic.

You could record specific qualitative information, such as information about animal behaviour. A good example might be recording the behaviour patterns of lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda.

And if you’ve not got a trip planned anytime soon, you could participate remotelyWalrus From Space lets you count walruses from satellite images for the WWF and British Antarctic Survey. Perhaps you could lend the computer power of your home PC to a medical research project like Folding@Home.

In nearly all cases, you’ll be contributing to a database that is open to all, so you can see what your work is doing.


Citizen Science holidays are still holidays – they are focused on your relaxation, enjoyment and adventure. Scientific measurements will take a couple of hours out of one or two days, at most. You’ll find plenty of trips involve an element of wildlife monitoring or data collection, though they won’t be labelled as citizen science trips. We partner with many organisations that are interested in keeping tabs on their immediate environment, where citizen science existed long before the term became popularised. Lots of data collection involves an element of tech, such as taking a photograph on your smartphone and uploading it onto a website – a good excuse to be on your phone! It’s sometimes called ‘community science’ – for when who is and who isn’t a ‘citizen’ becomes problematic. You don’t have to go on holiday to participate – remote monitoring and observation is improving all the time. A spot of walrus counting from your bedroom might tide you over until your next trip.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Unsplash+] [Intro: Secret Paradise] [A Finland wonderland: Exodus Adventure Travels] [Hidden science: Secret Paradise] [Citizen science tasks on holiday: Wayfairer Travel]