Explore and conserve Thailand’s diverse ecosystems – from the jungle to the beach!
This two-week program is an adventure to explore, learn about, and help conserve the most beautiful and amazing landscapes of Thailand, from the rain forests and mountains in the North to the coral reefs and tropical beaches in the South. Join expert conservationists studying and protecting these delicate ecosystems, and enjoy the elephants, sharks, sea turtles, and more that call them home.
This program is open to students and young adults age 18 – 23. There are no academic pre-requisites for this program. You must be able to swim and be physically fit enough for outdoor activities such as hiking and snorkeling.
Groups have a maximum of 12 students and will be lead by an American science professor and a Thai tour guide. Courses and excursions in Koh Tao will be lead by the researchers and staff at New Heaven Reef Conservation Program.
• Get SCUBA certified and learn conservation diving
• Volunteer for a day at an elephant sanctuary
• Learn to identify and keep records of marine invertebrates, tropical fish and coral health
• Hike, zipline, and raft the rainforest and jungle
Some of the topics explored during this program are:
• Coral reef ecology and reef species
• Climate change and coral reefs
• Shark population dynamics
• Sea turtle and giant clam research
• Deforestation and reforestation research
• Culture and Development
• Cloud forest ecology
• Umbrella species and conservation
• Plight of the Asian Elephant
June 17 – July 3
Our Wild Tropics program is a full adventure on its own, but it can be combined with our College Veterinary Service program in Thailand.
Combine any two programs for an automatic 10% discount on your tuition. Airfare costs stay the same.
You can also combine Wild Tropics with Veterinary Service: South Africa for additional airfare.
By adding the Elephant Bonus Week to your program, you can build your own three-week adventure without increasing your airfare.
This program is open to all experience levels – from students who have never SCUBA dived to those with Advanced Open Water or higher certifications. Each morning, we’ll eat breakfast together and then break into small groups based on experience level for the day. We’ll regroup at dinner.
If you don’t have any SCUBA certification, you’ll have the opportunity to complete your Open Water Diver certification over the first three days. Each day, you’ll study and practice skills with your dive instructor in a small group. After your certification, you’ll join an ecological monitoring and coral restoration dive with New Heavens’ experienced Research and Conservation team.
If you are an Open Water SCUBA diver already, you’ll spend the first two or three days to complete your Advanced Open Water Diver certification in a small group with your dive instructor. After your certification, you’ll join an ecological monitoring and coral restoration dives with New Heavens’ experienced Research and Conservation team.
If you’re already an Advanced Open Water SCUBA diver or have a higher certification, you will need to prove your skills on a refresher dive then you’ll jump right in with the experienced Conservation and Research divers! From day one, you’ll learn and practice advanced skills related to marine species identification, coral health monitoring, artificial reef construction and maintenance, and/or other skills. Just like students on doing the SCUBA certifications, you may need to attend small group lectures and training to prepare for the day’s conservation dive.
As long as the weather and visibility are good, all students can expect to enjoy 5-6 SCUBA dives and at least one snorkel experience. Your group will have up to 16 participants, one Trip Leader, and the New Heaven Reef Conservation Program instructors.
Tuition is $3,850 USD plus international airfare. Airfare on the group flight from New York, NY is $1,700 USD round-trip including taxes and fees.
Tuition includes all housing, meals, program fees, activities, equipment, and transportation in Thailand (including flight within Thailand and boat travel).
Students may be in double rooms or dorm-style rooms with students of the same gender with twin beds or a shared bed. Rooms do not have air conditioning. Meals will be eaten as a group at local restaurants, mostly serving Western and Thai food. Special diets and food allergies can be accommodated.
If you are planning to apply to vet school, this program provides:
20 animal experience hours
10 research hours
20 service hours
SCUBA certifications are offered through Scuba Schools International (SSI). If you have questions about receiving college credit for this certification, please contact us.
You may also request a transcript for “Tropical Ecology and Conservation: From Cloud Forests to Coral Reefs,” the Pass/Fail academic course that is part of this program. This may be necessary if you are applying for credit at your school.
You will be issued a certificate for 20 service hours at the end of the program. Loop Abroad is a certifying organization for the Presidential Volunteer Service Award, for which those hours are eligible.
Home to over sixty elephants who are no longer able to work in elephant-based industries or have been rescued from inhumane conditions in logging, trekking, or circus operations. The Park and its founder, Lek Chailert, have been recognized time and again for tireless efforts to improve the lives of elephants in SE Asia.find out more
Much more than just a diving school, New Heaven has more than 20 years of experience showing and preserving the island reefs and occasionally hosting sea turtles in their small nursery.find out more
Please note that this is a sample itinerary and is subject to change based on weather, tides, visibility, animals and ecosystems in need, and other factors. Also, Week 1 and Week 2 may be reversed in your program.
Week 1 – Chiang Mai
Arrive in Chiang Mai on Sunday evening for a welcome dinner and orientation. If you are already in Thailand and connecting this with another program, you’ll say goodbye to your first group a few hours before you meet you new Wild Tropics group.
We spend the first week of the program based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Known as the “Rose of the North”, this mountain city is the perfect base from which to explore rain forests, mountains, cloud forests, and the beautiful culture of Thailand.
Visit Doi Inthanon National Park to appreciate its beautiful cloud forests, with temples that rise above the cloud line and wonderful waterfalls at the top of the world. Volunteer at a reforestation project run by the university and raft a jungle river.
Spend a day ziplining through the rain forest and learn how zipline projects contribute to conservation efforts. Take an amazing overnight trek into the jungle, including a visit to a hilltribe village and an overnight at a hot springs. Wander through a mountain templed into the Chiang Dao caves and explore its depths by lantern light — the cool air here is home to thousands of bats (who stay up high and away from you!).
In addition to our daily adventures, we will explore cultural activities in the evening such as a trying a meditation lesson with Buddhist monks, shopping in the city craft and food markets, visiting an arts village and trying our hands at making paper, and touring 700-year-old city temples.
Week 2 – Koh Tao
In week 2, we travel by a combination of plane, bus, and ferry to Koh to the island of Koh Tao (“Turtle Island”) in the Gulf of Thailand. There may be an overnight stop on our way.
Each day Monday – Friday: Koh Tao runs on ‘island time’. Being surrounded by palm trees, coconuts, and the sound of the waves just makes people slow down a bit. Here’s the rough plan for each day, but plan to be flexible:
7am: Yoga class (optional)
9am: Arrive to New Heaven and prepare equipment
9:15am: Morning class and/or SCUBA
3:30pm: Relax on the beach
5pm: Class or project briefing for next day (only 2-3 days)
8pm: Evening games or free time
Monday: Orientation to the island and New Heaven Reef Conservation Program’s mission of conservation and research
SCUBA Day 1
Tuesday: SCUBA Day 2
Wednesday: SCUBA Day 3
Evening: Marine Ecology 101 and Monitoring Techniques
Thursday: Reef invertebrates and indicator species lecture
Evening lesson: Shark and Turtle Ecology and Monitoring
Friday: Morning shark survey snorkel
Final dinner on the mountain
Saturday: Dip your toes in the ocean one last time then travel back to Chiang Mai (combination of boat, bus, and plane). Evening trip to the Chiang Mai Street Market for shopping, food, and fun.
Sunday: International departure day! Loop Abroad alumni meeting, relax and pack, buffet lunch, and airport departure. Groups will return to the US on final program date, plus or minus one day depending on time of departure.
You’ll notice that elephant riding is not included in this itinerary. Learn about why we don’t ride elephants.
New Heaven dive schools has an excellent safety record and often hosts student groups like ours. Their experienced team of conservation divers will provide our safety orientation on arrival. In the water, the most important skill is to move slowly and deliberately, observing but not disturbing the many colorful creatures you see. As with most wildlife, patient explorers will find the most amazing species and unusual behaviors.
Above water, Koh Tao is a small but busy community of divers and visitors. It’s a beautiful and exciting place to be, but it’s important to stay with your group and watch your belongings, especially considering we’ll be loading or unloading the boat every day!
Note: All participants must be capable of independently entering and exiting the water by a ladder and must pass a basic swim test (swimming, treading water) in order to safely join in-water activities.
Learn more about Thai culture, conservation, elephants, or veterinary medicine
A special thanks to Charlotte Leonetti, teen book reviewer and student travel blogger, for helping us put together this book list from the huge amount of choices available. You can purchase any of the books on our suggested reading lists at the links below.*
Chasing the Dragon’s Tail: The Struggle to Save Thailand’s Wild Cats, by Alan Rabinowitz. Alan Rabinowitz is one of the leading authors on protecting large cats in the wild. He is the director of the Science and Exploration Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, and has led research expeditions all over the world. He is known for founding the world’s first jaguar reserve, which lies in Belize. This book is a sad and beautiful tale of the author’s struggle to understand Thailand and to help save the wild cat population of Thailand.
A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants, by Jaed Coffin. Jaed Coffin lives in Maine, and was raised in the United States as a Thai American. When he was twenty-one-years-old, he left college life in New England to be ordained as a Buddhist Monk in his mother’s native village of Panomsarakram, Thailand. This book is the story of his time in Thailand, and explores themes of displacement, ethnic identity, and cultural belonging. (NOTE: this book isn’t about elephants.)
When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy. This New York Times Bestseller was heralded as “A masterpiece, the most comprehensive and compelling argument for animal sensibility…”. Elephants are the national animal of Thailand, and are an important symbol in religion and culture there. They are also intelligent, social animals who are on the brink of extinction in Asia and Africa. This text is a great exploration of the emotional lives of elephants and an eye-opening tale for students of conservation and the behavior of animals, human or otherwise.
Elephant Memories, by Cynthia Moss. Cynthia Moss is founder and director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Africa. As a study of a family of African Elephants in Kenya over twenty-seven years, this book is a moving and important book. “One is soon swept away by this ‘Babar’ for adults. By the end, one wants to curse human civilization and cry out, ‘Now God stand up for the elephants!’”, wrote Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times.
Tales of an African Vet, by Dr. Roy Aronson Booklist says, “For a veterinarian, it’s one thing when one’s patients are cuddly pet cats, dogs, and the occasional hamster. It’s quite another when the cats turn out to be cheetahs, the dogs are part wolf, and the hamster? Well, that could be anything from a gorilla to an elephant, a puff adder to a crocodile. Through equal parts luck, timing, and desire, Aronson augmented his 25-plus-year career as a small animal veterinarian in South Africa with house calls to treat some of the world’s largest and most dangerous creatures. Except that in Aronson’s case, the “house” was anywhere from a rhino’s cage at the renowned Pretoria Zoo to a lion’s pride in the densest African bush. The case histories of the animals treated in these treacherous locations provide an exhilarating glimpse into the lives of numerous valuable and endangered species. As intrepid as Indiana Jones and as compassionate as Dr. Doolittle, Aronson shares harrowing, and sometimes humorous, adventures in an engrossing memoir about an unexpected career.”
The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild, by Lawrence Anthony Publisher’s Weekly says, “In 1998, prize-winning conservationist Anthony (Babylon’s Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo) purchased Thula Thula, “5,000 acres of pristine bush in the heart of Zululand, South Africa,” transforming a rundown hunters’ camp (dating to the 19th century) into a wild animal preserve and a center for eco-tourism. In 1999, Anthony agreed to take in a herd of “troubled” wild elephants, the first seen in the area in more than a century. Winning their trust, becoming deeply attached, and even learning how they communicate (deep, rumbling “whispers,” sensed rather than heard), Anthony took enormous risks in the form of enraged elephants, distrustful neighbors, and poachers. Over time Anthony succeeds in his larger goal, winning support from the six Zulu tribes whose land borders the reserve (“most Zulus … had never set eyes on an elephant”); they eventually join Anthony’s venture as partners in a larger conservation trust. An inspiring, multifaceted account, Anthony’s book offers fascinating insights into the lives of wild elephants in the broader context of Zulu culture in post-Apartheid South Africa.”
Last Chain on Billie: How one Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top, by Carol Bradley ” Like the majority of captive elephants, Billie was captured as a calf, surfacing in the U.S. in 1966 as a four-year-old. After several years in a private zoo, she joined the circus, where she was trained to perform. Circuses are an extremely demanding environment for elephants, with constant travel from one town to another, multiple shows per week, and continuous noise. Although she learned difficult tricks and was a star, Billie rebelled and began to be known as a difficult elephant, gaining a reputation for attacking her trainers. Meanwhile, two former elephant trainers had grown disenchanted with circuses and the distorted lives that circus elephants lived, and they decided to found a sanctuary for former performing elephants in Tennessee. The story of how Billie got to the Elephant Sanctuary, and of how the sanctuary overcame the prejudices of both the circus and zoo communities, is both heartrending and uplifting. Full of details of the brutal life endured by performing elephants, of battles between Billie’s owner and the U.S. Department of Agriculture over her ultimate fate, and of Billie’s eventual adjustment to a life of freedom, Bradley’s newest has produced a well-researched winner.” – Booklist
*Links are affiliate links – thanks for helping to support Loop Abroad!
"This was the best trip I have ever been on!"
Audre S., Wild Tropics + Elephant Bonus Week