Written by and photo courtesy of Erin Cubitt
The first time I came across Operation Wallacea was during school in 2008 when our biology teacher gave us a presentation about the school expeditions. As I watched the slideshow I felt excitement grow as I saw all the pictures of bright and colourful animals. As cheesy as it may sound I had always wanted to be involved in conservation projects as my passion was influenced by viewing nature documentaries. After the presentation and the possibility of a rumored expedition to Honduras if enough people signed up I knew that I wanted to be one of the individuals on the trip. I placed my interest with my biology teacher and I was soon told I would be heading to Honduras in 2010. I ended up spending one week at the terrestrial site and the other week on Utila completing my P.A.D.I Open Water course.
For my expedition the majority of my costs were fundraised through bag-packing events every other weekend over two years. My mum also regularly made Scottish Tablet which we sold to the school teachers for £1 a block. Over the two years we sold 1,000 blocks of tablet. The two years to the expedition flew in and before I knew it I was trekking to see the cloud forests in Honduras. As soon as I arrived I was amazed by the wildlife and how it varied, I saw my first bats, birds, tropical reptiles and amphibians. I was enchanted by the scientists working on site and how much enthusiasm they held for their subject.
By the end of my first week in the jungle I was so exhausted but I knew that I had made the most of my week and that I would have a slightly less intense week at the marine site. However once I got home all I could think about how I could get involved and even one day be one of the scientists that had influenced me so much in a few years time.
After leaving school and entering University it was definitely time for another adventure. It didn’t take me very long before I was looking at all the expeditions available which Opwall and two hours after looking at the website I had placed a notice of interest on an expedition. A couple of days later I was booked on to an expedition for the summer of 2013 for 6 weeks in Mexico as a research assistant. I spent 3 weeks in Calakamul reserve at two of the camps. I got to go out on all the different surveys and learnt so much from the scientists I worked with.
During the 3 weeks I tried to go on as many surveys as possible, which is tiring in the Mexican heat, but that way I knew I wouldn’t miss out and feel like I had missed any opportunities of being in such an amazing environment. Every day I was involved in at least two surveys which normally were habitat and one other survey such as bats. On several occasions throughout my 3 weeks I was also known for going on extra habitat in the morning and the afternoon and then go out with bats. Once or twice I may have even stayed up after bats and gone on to survey with birds. I just didn’t want to miss a single moment.
Being out and surveying in a reserve full of biodiversity was such a huge opportunity that I was convinced I would never be likely to have the chance again. After 3 weeks completed in the jungle surveying habitats, bats, birds, herps and mammal tracks it was time to move to Akumal. Having passed my P.A.D.I open water in 2010 it meant that I could just have a refresher course and get involved in the research. The surveys I was involved in included fish diversity transects, measuring sea urchins specifically looking at the Spiny black sea urchin. I also helped some of the dissertation students in Akumal collect data on sea turtle behavior. My weeks in Akumal passed very quickly and before I knew it I was heading home. I found the dive site to be amazing and even managed to catch a glimpse of a shark. As much as I enjoyed my time in Akumal the experience gave me the opportunity to recognize that I am truly a jungle girl at heart.
Fast forward to 2014 and I was returning to Mexico for round 2 this time as a habitat staff member for 8 weeks in the forest. This was the most amazing opportunity that I could have been given. Not many people my age can say that they have worked in a biosphere reserve in Mexico for their summer. I have LOVED every minute of being a habitat staff member. Not only do I get to contribute to the data being collected during the season but you always have the element of surprise during the surveys of sightings of creatures such as fluffy caterpillars, peccary or even a cacomistle. As with all wild animals there is also the possibility of seeing nothing but if you’re not out in the field you definitely won’t see it.
I have learnt so much being part of the Opwall family and continually amazed every time I get the chance to come out and collect habitat data during the field season. It is not just about the science but meeting the amazing staff members and students who are involved in our project.
Habitat Erin reporting from Mexico Round 3 week 5 of the 2015 field season.
P.s Hopefully some of you will come join the Opwall family