Per volunteer

* with 100% Employer Matching Program.
Total price: US$5900.

7 days

6 nights

5 activity days

10  8

Monitoring volunteer spaces left

A unique opportunity to help advance tropical marine research with marine megafauna

MarAlliance invites you to immerse yourself in a once-in-a-lifetime experience in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, Panama. During this trip, you will experience the life of a tropical marine field biologist while helping us collect invaluable data on sharks, rays, sea turtles, and other poorly studied marine megafauna.

You will be on the front line of marine megafauna monitoring and contribute to the conservation of these vital inhabitants. We will train you to be directly involved in each aspect of field work from in-water observations of animals, to launching Baited Remote Underwater Videos to setting longlines to capture, measure, and tag sharks and rays.

We are excited to have the opportunity to share our findings with you and the field work will be complemented by presentations by our research team during the course of the week.

The Details

Why are marine megafauna important?

Megafauna play an essential ecological role within marine communities, helping to balance and maintain fish and reef populations. Throughout the world these important creatures face multiple threats, and populations are in decline due to overfishing and destruction of their habitat. Knowledge of the diversity and abundance of marine megafauna and how their populations change over time is crucial to managing these populations.

Monitoring through fisheries-independent methods enables researchers and government officials to understand the status of marine megafauna populations and the effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas, as well as fill in gaps in our knowledge of their life history including their habitat use and movements throughout their life cycle.

MarAlliance’s work in Panama

With over 1,500 miles (2,500 km) of coastline along the Pacific and Caribbean sides, Panama hosts a wide variety of marine habitats. While fishing is an important source of income for a large number of Panamanians, monitoring of landings is almost nonexistent and anecdotal reports suggest declines in fish populations throughout the country. Although few fishers directly target sharks and rays, incidental capture is not uncommon and shark meat can be found in many fish markets.

MarAlliance leads annual monitoring of the marine megafauna at several sites in the Panamanian Caribbean. Less developed and less accessible than the Pacific coast of Panama, the Caribbean coast hosts marine communities that have not been as severely impacted by overfishing as sites along the Pacific coast. Relatively calm and clear water conditions and large areas of coral reef also provide many suitable sites for the use of Baited Remote Underwater Videos (BRUVs) and underwater visual census to assess and monitor the populations of large marine wildlife.

Beautiful and abundant Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro province, located on the Caribbean coast in the northeast corner of Panama, near the border with Costa Rica, is made up of mainland communities and the Bocas del Toro archipelago.

There are 240 islands ranging from tiny mangrove islets to Bastimentos Island, which exceeds 100,000 acres (400km2) in size. Isla Colón is the main island where Bocas town is located. The islands are well-known for their pristine waters, secluded islands and abundant primary rainforest. The area is also characterized by two large lagoons: the smaller Almirante and larger Chiriquí. These lagoons are of great importance as they are sheltered from the Caribbean Sea, which helps support and protect populations of marine flora and fauna.

Bocas del Toro’s primary marine conservation site is Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. This park encompasses a total area of more than 32,000 acres (130 km2), of which more than 28,000 (116 km2) are marine habitats including extensive reef, sea grass beds, and large areas of mangroves. The park was designated in order to protect marine and terrestrial habitats, as well as marine and terrestrial fauna.

Travel and accommodations

You will arrive at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City and spend one night enjoying the country’s vibrant capital before catching an hour-long flight to Bocas del Toro from Albrook International Airport.

Once you arrive on Isla Colón, a taxi will take you and your luggage to your accommodation for your time in Bocas del Toro. Bocas Paradise Hotel is located in the heart of Bocas Town, the main population center in the Bocas del Toro archipelago, and is close to many wonderful restaurants and shops.

Each room is furnished with two twin beds (or a king-size bed for couples), a private bathroom, wireless internet, air conditioning, and a balcony overlooking the town or the ocean. A breakfast buffet will be provided at the hotel each morning, while lunch will be provided in the field. Dinners for most nights will be at local restaurants with the team. You will have the option for one night to eat wherever you would like.


Your objective is to assist MarAlliance’s Panama-based shark and ray research team to monitor large marine wildlife around the Bocas del Toro archipelago. To prepare for your trip and help us collect the most valuable data we will provide you with materials in advance to assist you with species identification and size/distance estimation. On your first days in Bocas, we will hold training sessions to review the methods and fine-tune your size and distance estimation skills (on land and in the water).


Species identification of sharks, rays, turtles and piscivorous fish

Identifying marine megafauna by species is an important part of assessing biodiversity. Species ID will be used during in-water visual transects and in analyzing Baited Remote Underwater Video recordings. We will further ask you to familiarize yourself with species prior to the trip to improve species identification in the field.

In-water visual transect

Transects are a non-invasive method for assessing diversity and relative abundance of marine megafauna.

Each transect involves four swimmers positioned in the water and spaced 30 metres apart. Each transect is 1km in length and throughout the transect each swimmer is responsible for recording species, quantity, distance estimation, and size estimation for the sharks, rays, turtles, and piscivorous fish they see within their area.

You will learn species identification and size estimation techniques to accurately record data. Following field work you can help to transcribe data to provide indices of species diversity, abundance, demographics, and size frequencies according to the different habitats sampled.

Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUV)

BRUVs are structures made out of PVC pipe or metal that contain a GoPro camera and an extended arm with a bait cage.

BRUVs are deployed at various sites around the archipelago for at least 60 mins at a time in order to record species that are attracted to the bait. These videos are later analyzed to record the species and relative number of individuals and assess diversity and relative abundance.

We will collectively review videos taken during the day and annotate these to record target species and frequency of occurrence.

Longline capture and tagging of sharks and rays

Scientific longlining is another method to assess shark and ray diversity and abundance, especially over long periods of time.

This technique involves setting a line of 50 baited hooks in order to capture individuals and collect more specific measurements, tag the animal with a marker that will identify them in future captures or sightings, and collect a tissue sample for DNA and contaminant analysis.

You will assist with baiting and setting the longline, collecting environmental data, and will learn proper handling techniques for safely tagging and releasing sharks and rays.

OPTIONAL (price not included): one day’s diving at Turks and Caicos Islands

Recommended Bocas dive shops:

Bocas Dive Center
Scuba 6 Eco Diving

Bocas del Toro, Panamá

 September 16-22, 2017

Day 1


Arrival in Panama
International flight arrival to Tocumen International Airport (PTY), Panama.
Transfer to hotel in Panama City for overnight stay.

Recommended hotels:

  • Magnolia Inn in the heart of Casco Viejo, the historic district of Panama City
  • Albrook Inn is located only 1km from Albrook International Airport
  • If you prefer higher end accommodations downtown Panama City hosts hotel chains such as Hyatt Place Panama City or Meridian Panama

Day 2



Taxi transfer to Albrook International Airport (PAC)
Flight to Isla Colón, Bocas del Toro
Taxi transfer to Bocas Paradise Hotel

Check in/rest
Lunch on own/explore Bocas town independently


Review of field work methods and fieldwork timetable


Dinner with research crew, meet the team

Presentation – Dr. Rachel Graham, Executive Director, MarAlliance

Day 3


NB: Participants will be divided into three groups (A, B, C) to personalize the experience and to ensure space on the boats; each group gets the opportunity to rotate through the different monitoring techniques.


Breakfast at Bocas Paradise


Boat/taxi to practice field site
Size estimation exercises on land and in water
Instruction in survey methods and data collection
In-water surveys for sharks, rays, and turtles (Group A)
Baited Remote Underwater Video Surveys (Group B)


Lunch in field/fonda


In-water surveys for sharks, rays, and turtles (Group A)
Baited Remote Underwater Video surveys (Group B)


Dinner with team


Presentation – Megan Chevis, MSc., Panama Coordinator
Review of day’s videos

Day 4





In-water surveys for sharks, rays and turtles (Group B)
Baited Remote Underwater Video surveys (Group C)
Shark monitoring (Group A)


Lunch in field/at fonda


In-water surveys for sharks, rays, and turtles (Group B)
Baited Remote Underwater Video Surveys (Group C)
Shark monitoring (Group A)


Dinner – Free choice


  • El Ultimo Refugio (puts a spin on traditional)
  • Taco Surf Bocas (traditional Mexican menu with great prices)
  • Paki Point (moderately priced American style pub, further from town in a relaxed beach setting)
  • Leaf Eaters Café (vegetarian/vegan)

Day 5





In-water surveys for sharks, rays and turtles (Group C)
Baited Remote Underwater Video surveys (Group A)
Shark monitoring (Group B)


Lunch in field/at fonda


In-water surveys for sharks, rays and turtles (Group C)
Baited Remote Underwater Video surveys (Group A)
Shark monitoring (Group B)


Dinner with the team


Night shark work and/or review of day’s videos

Day 6





In-water surveys for sharks, rays and turtles (Group A)
Baited Remote Underwater Video surveys (Group B)
Shark monitoring (Group C)


Lunch in field/at fonda


In-water surveys for sharks, rays and turtles (Group A)
Baited Remote Underwater Video surveys (Group B)
Shark monitoring (Group C)


Dinner with entire team


Summary of weeks activities by team & participants

Day 7





Check out from hotel


International flights should be booked for after 2:00pm

Please note agenda may be subject to change.

Travel tips

The official currency of Panama is the Balboa. The exchange rate between balboas and US dollars is 1:1, and dollars are used as the main form of currency.

Electrical outlets are the same as in the United States and typically 120V/60Hz.

The local time is 6 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (GMT – 6), and there is no time change during the year.

If you plan on using your cell phone, standard roaming charges will apply and rates will be carrier dependent.  Most restaurants, hotels and bars are equipped with wifi that is free for paying customers.

In most of the country, including Panama City, tap water is safe to drink. On the islands in Bocas del Toro we will provide filtered water for you to fill your water bottles.


Safety is our top concern and MarAlliance has an emergency plan for each of our field work sites throughout Panama. All boats carry basic first aid kits and a more comprehensive kit will be held at the hotel.

Emergency contacts for Isla Colón

Bocas del Toro Hospital: Tel. 011-507-757-9201
Police: Tel. 011-507-757-9217, 011-507-757-9485
Air Panama: Tel: 011-507-757-9841

What to bring

For the sun and sea








Swim wear (at least 2 suits)




Lycra bodysuit

* Make sure your sunscreen is coral/reef safe and doesn’t contain oxybenzone, octinoxate, 4-MBC and the common preservative butylparaben, all of which kill coral.
** Polarized are recommended as they cut down the glare on the water.
*** We will have these for sale too!



2-3 T-shirts


2-3 pairs of shorts


One long-sleeved shirt and one pair of long pants †


1 large regular towel


Large quick dry towel


Pareo or wrap

† To take out on the water in case you start getting too much sun.



Mask, fins and snorkel (test equipment before arrival)


Rain jacket (just in case)


Underwater or splash-proof camera/GoPro


Headlamp with rechargeable batteries


Dry sack for keeping camera gear and other items water-free


Re-useable water bottle

Health and wellbeing


Bug spray


Sea-sick? Dramamine or meclizine


Own medicines


Snacks, e.g. hard candy‡


Books to read

‡ Always good to have following the snorkel transects!

Price includes


  • Double occupancy room for 6 nights at Bocas Paradise Hotel.


  • Round-trip domestic air transfers between Albrook Airport in Panama City and the Isla Colón Airport in Bocas del Toro
  • Round-Trip ground transfers between the Isla Colón Airport and Bocas Paradise Hotel
  • Ground transfer from Albrook Airport to Tocumen International Airport upon return to Panama City


  • All meals including full breakfast buffet (including coffee, tea), lunch and dinner, beginning with dinner on the day of arrival through breakfast on the day of departure.
  • Water will be provided for re-fillable bottles, juice and soda will be provided for breakfast and dinner.


  • 10%  hotel tax, marine conservation fee, and environmental fee when arriving at Bocas airport
  • Swag bag!

Price does not include

Travel and transfers

  • International air (Panama departure tax is included in their airfare)
  • Mandatory trip cancellation insurance
  • Ground transfer from Tocumen International Airport to your Panama City hotel

Accommodations, meals and beverages

  • Prior to arrival at Bocas Paradise Hotel
  • After departure from Isla Colon for return to Albrook Airport
  • Lunch on first day in Bocas
  • Alcoholic beverages, extra soda, juices and snacks
  • One dinner in Isla Colón


  • Gratuities for hotel staff and drivers (10-15% is standard)
  • Snorkeling gear
  • Personal items and incidentals
  • Souvenirs