Every time you travel, you learn something new about the world around you. But what if your experiences—the things you see, hear and touch along the way—could help scientists better understand the Earth and preserve its ecosystems?

It’s called citizen science, when everyday people collect and analyze data about the natural world and share it with researchers. Here are five fun ways to be a citizen scientist on your next vacation:

Count sharks in the Galapagos

Diving with sharks is a bucket list–worthy experience—especially in the biologically rich Galapagos Islands. The waters surrounding these remote land masses (about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador) are home to hammerheads, whale sharks, blacktip reef sharks, Galapagos bullhead sharks and other species.

Divers and snorkelers can help protect these animals by participating in SharksCount. On your trip as a citizen scientist, all you have to do is count, identify and log the sharks you see, and you’ll be supplying researchers with valuable data about local populations—which they’ll use to improve protections for sharks around the world.

See the northern lights and tell NASA about it

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Swirls of green, pink, red and white dancing across the night sky—the aurora borealis, or northern lights—are among Earth’s most amazing sights. The lights are most visible in far northern destinations such as Alaska, Canada, Iceland and the countries of Scandinavia, but you might also spot the northern lights in some of the lower 48 states, such as Maine, Minnesota and Michigan.

No matter where you catch the phenomenon on your citizen scientist journey, you can report it to NASA through the Aurorasaurus project. Scientists are using data from reported sightings—including the location, time, colors and shapes visible—to help them better understand how activity on the sun affects the Earth.

Spot otters in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This national park along the North Carolina/Tennessee border is one of the country’s most visited. Black bears and wildflowers are among the visual draws—but keep an eye out for playful, sleek river otters, too.

The animals disappeared from the Smokies in the early 1900s because of habitat destruction and uncontrolled trapping. But between 1986 and 1994, the National Park Service relocated and reintroduced more than 100 river otters to the park—and today their numbers are growing.

The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont is working to get an accurate count with the Otter Spotter program. And the task for a citizen scientist is simple: When you see one, report it and you’ll be helping researchers track the park’s otter population.

Record whale behaviors on a cruise excursion

Whale-watching trips are a staple of Alaskan cruises, but what if you got to do more than just look? Royal Caribbean offers a shore excursion on its journeys to Juneau that puts you side-by-side with scientists researching the local food chain and other environmental factors that affect marine populations.

Your citizen scientist duty: Help them identify, track and record the behaviors of humpback whales—all while taking in amazing views of frolicking whales, seals, sea lions and more. You’ll also visit Mendenhall Glacier, where you can help take water samples or make notes about the life cycles of native plants.

Observe plants and animals on the Appalachian Trail

Whether you tackle just a portion of it or its entire 2,180-mile length (from Georgia to Maine!), a hike along the Appalachian Trail is an unforgettable experience. You can make your time on the trail count by becoming part of the A.T. Seasons project.

Researchers are studying the life cycles of plants and animals and how they’re affected by the climate—and climate change. You, the citizen scientist, can make observations along the trail and report them as a trained observer.

Plan a Science-Focused Getaway

Whether you want to help scientists or just learn something new, your AAA Travel Advisor can help you plan a trip around your citizen science interests.

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