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Some CEOs find scientific expeditions are their brand of R&R

He ate piranha for lunch and hunted wild pig for dinner. He spent weeks in a tropical forest crawling with insects, jungle cats, and snakes that can kill a man in a matter of minutes. He befriended the natives.

Was this some Rambo bound for yet another moment of glory? Was he some shipwrecked soul searching for civilization?

No, this was a CEO on vacation.

Michael Levine, president of Levine & Associates, an Ann Arbor, Michigan, electronics consulting firm, is one of many commanders of the boardroom who chooses to spend his free time working side-by-side with scientists in the field instead of with his peers on the golf course. In his case, the field happened to be the jungles of Guyana where he studied the effects of jungle clearing on indigenous insects.

The three-week expedition was organized by Earthwatch, a non-profit organization based in Watertown, Mass., that teams up scientists with volunteers willing to work long and hard in the field, and

pay a share of the research costs. Costs, for example, range from $695 for a week in the White Mountains studying ferns with a botanist, to $2,400 in the Soviet Union studying Siberian dwarf hamsters or taking core samples from Lake Baikal. In return, volunteers earn a modest tax deduction and a shot at scientific adventure.

Other Earthwatch expeditions have taken Levine to the island of Tonga in the South Pacific, where he helped set up breeding farms of giant clams, and to southern Chile where he surveyed the endangered deer population. The Chile expedition was physically exhausting, says Levine. “We did a lot of backpacking and mountain climbing. The terrain was extremely rugged and being so far south, the snow line was at about 3,000 feet. We would make a lot of noise to drive the deer up above the timber line so we could see them and count them.” At one point, Levine recalls, the group ran low on food and one of the volunteers rode bareback 30 miles into town to buy groceries. “She realized we were getting sick from lack of proper food, too much cold and not enough nourishment.”

A successful CEO can afford to vacation almost anywhere he chooses, so why would he choose hard work and less-than-luxurious living conditions? Levine likes the fact that he gets to know the local people and to experience a foreign culture in a way no tourist ever could. “It makes me a little more humble,” he says. An inventor who holds several patents, Levine says, “Earthwatch trips get me away for a period of time to really think…I come up with new ideas.”

All expeditions are work, but some require less physical labor than others, and while all accommodations are on the spar-tan side, some do come with indoor plumbing. “It doesn’t have to be that strenuous,” says Levine. “You can choose an expedition that involves airbrushing off fossils. Some are sedentary, some are not, but no one treats this as a vacation, as a tour, or as sightseeing.”

Dale Dykema, president of T.D. Service Financial Corp., a Southern California real estate holding company, did manage to tour the Waterford crystal factory on one of the rare days off during an expedition in Ireland. Daylight hours were spent walking over the fields of County Waterford looking for flint artifacts. The purpose of this field survey was to pinpoint likely sites for an archeological dig by locating Stone Age artifacts unearthed by farmers’ plows. The actual excavation of these sites is one of the expeditions planned by Earthwatch for this summer.

Most volunteers on the Ireland trip stayed in local cottages-or in Dykema’s case, a rooming house-ate a brown bag lunch and took their evening meal at a local hotel dining room. “We would congregate there for our evening glass of Guinness and then have dinner,” he says, “There was a real family feeling.” Dykema is drawn to such trips because they are unusual. He also likes the fact that the projects are privately funded, in part, by the volunteers.

Dykema also participated in one of the longest running and most successful projects: saving endangered leatherback turtles on the island of St. Croix. For the past seven springs, Earthwatch volunteers have combed the beaches at night waiting for the giant turtles to come out of the ocean to lay their eggs. They tag, weigh, and measure the turtles, which range from 700 to 1,500 pounds, count the eggs and, in many cases, rebury the eggs in a safer location. When the eggs hatch, they accompany the baby turtles down the beach and into the water to protect them from predators. The presence of the volunteers has not only saved thousands of turtles from natural enemies, but from poachers who had been pilfering the eggs for sale as aphrodisiacs in the Far East.

“It was a very cleansing experience to walk that beach at night with the stars above you and nothing but the sea pounding against the beach,” says Robert Averill, president of Oddity, Inc., a Pennsylvania-based wholesaler in the candle and fragrance business. Averill joined a 10-day turtle expedition last May and remembers it as “hard, hard work. You start off at 7:30 at night and finish up when the last turtle goes back to the sea-and that might be 6:00 a.m.” One night, five turtles hit the beach at once, a situation he likened to “a Chinese fire drill.” After spending the night trudging through deep sand, the volunteers slept during the day, two to a room in a hotel with four people to a bathroom. They took turns cooking their own meals. “It wasn’t the Hilton by any means, but it wasn’t intolerable,” says Averill.

An Earthwatch expedition is “a fascinating way to spend a vacation. I found people who were interested in adventure and doing something useful on vacation rather than just playing golf or hanging around a swimming pool,” says Ray Cleeland, chairman of Johann Haviland China Corp., which imports tableware.

On two-thirds of the 14 expeditions Cleeland has joined, the volunteers stayed in a hotel or permanent shelter. Others camped out, “and ate the equivalent of K-rations or cooked their own food,” he says. On an expedition off the northwest cost of Australia “we camped on a sand spit far out in the ocean. There was a high tide once that inundated the whole camp.

We were up to our knees in water.” Cleeland used his scuba diving skills to assist marine archeologists in salvaging the wreckage of a British whaling ship, the Lively, which sank around 1812.

Cleeland’s skill in the water also came in handy in Papua, New Guinea, where he studied a type of shrimp that digs intricate burrows into the sand, and twice in Bermuda, first to study the effects of pollution on coral, and second to observe the eating and breeding habits of octopi. After studying the underwater habitat of the octopus, the volunteers brought some of the tentacled creatures back to the lab. “They have suckers on them that really grab on so you have to be quick,” explains Cleeland. Because of the unusual dexterity and strength of the octopus, the aquariums had to be covered with plywood lids fastened down with strapping tape. “We had one octopus we called ‘Houdini’ because he kept escaping. During the night he would find some little crack between the tank and the plywood and he’d get a tentacle in there and pry it off. On two different mornings we found the aquarium empty so we went off to hunt Houdini. We’d find him halfway down the stairs and heading to the ocean. The third time he escaped it was too late, so we had Houdini for dinner,” says Cleeland. “He was delicious.”

No such exotic delicacy awaited Gary Brown on his expedition in Alaska. Brown, president of Combro, Inc., a Calilfornia computer brokerage firm, ate store-bought meats and any fresh fish his group caught while camped on the islands off Ketchikan. `One volunteer caught a 75-pound halibut that provided us with several dinners,” remembers Brown. The purpose of the Alaska trip was to locate and study the salmon traps placed in the rivers by Indians hundreds of years ago. Several such traps were found, thereby authenticating native fishing rites, says Brown, whose next expedition-to the Bahamas-proved far less conclusive. There the group sought to pinpoint the first landing site of Columbus in the New World.

In its search, the expedition team used a copy of a reproduction of the ship’s log. “In the times of Columbus they didn’t have nice Xerox machines-it was somebody hand-copying with a quill pen,” says Brown. “The writing wasn’t always legible, nor were the directions clear to someone who hadn’t been there.” With this log as its guide, the team searched two islands looking for shards of Spanish pottery. They did find evidence of Spanish explorers, but not enough to prove or disprove any of the many theories about Columbus‘s first stop in the Western Hemisphere.

Coming up with hard answers to scientific theories is not really what being an expedition volunteer is all about. The joy is in the searching and in the association with scientists working to unlock the secrets of our world. Brown says the biggest benefit for him is “the experience of interacting with someone who is a known expert in his field-to discuss theories one-on-one.” Friends and colleagues who take trips to Europe or the tropics don’t understand, says Brown. His wife, who likes to combine sightseeing with shopping on a vacation “thinks I’m crazy.” Yet, after two Earthwatch trips, Brown says he will probably take another rather than resort to a more typical vacation. “I’ve seen all the castles and churches I care to.”

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