This expedition is based for three weeks in the Cusuco cloud forest site, followed by three weeks at one, or both, of the Opwall marine research sites in Utila and Tela. The first three weeks are as for expedition 4 with training in jungle survival, canopy access (optional*) and Neotropical forest ecology followed by 2 weeks working with the various forest scientists, whose projects include collecting data on forest structure, amphibian spot lighting, small mammal trapping and mist netting for bats, alongside many other projects. Then the next three weeks are based at a marine site where you will learn to dive to PADI Open Water level (if not already dive trained) and then progress to a Caribbean reef ecology and survey methods course with practicals by diving. If you are already dive trained or would prefer to snorkel you just start with the Caribbean reef ecology and survey methods course. Then for the remaining weeks you would be working on the various marine research projects such as 3D modelling of the reefs, using stereo-video surveys to quantify fish communities, collecting data on sea urchin and lionfish abundance and other marine research projects.
*This carries an additional cost. The canopy access course gives you the opportunity to learn how to ascend into the canopy using a rope access technique. The course is run by Canopy Access Limited who have worked with the BBC and National Geographic to take film makers and presenters, including David Attenborough, into the canopy for that unique footage.
The forests of Central America are some of the most biologically diverse forests in the world, partly because they are the meeting point of two great faunas – those from North America and those from South America which had evolved separately. Many of these ecosystems have been badly degraded but there is a proposal to join currently discontinuous areas of forest into a continuous Mesoamerican forest corridor running from the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico (where there are other Opwall teams) to Panama. Part of this corridor will encompass the cloud forests of Cusuco National Park in Honduras – a site rich in endemics and endangered species yet threatened by unchecked illegal deforestation.
The Opwall survey teams have been working in Cusuco since 2003 and the data produced has resulted in the Park being listed as one of the top 50 most irreplaceable protected areas in the world (based on a review of 173,000 sites worldwide). As well as underlining the biological value of Cusuco, the datasets collected by the Opwall teams are also being used to make an application for funding through Natural Forest Standard (NFS). This will allow carbon credits from the Park to be issued, which can then be sold to multinational companies wishing to offset their carbon emissions and at the same time help protect biodiversity. Funding obtained in this way will then be used to manage and protect the park and the many unique species it supports.
In the Caribbean, there are a number of core issues that have been affecting the biodiversity of the coral reefs – including the mass mortality of keystone sea urchins that have allowed algal colonisation of reef areas, an invasive species originally from the Indo-Pacific (lionfish) that acts as a predator on reef fish which has been spreading across the Caribbean, and overfishing of reef fish by local communities. Opwall has two monitoring sites in Honduras: one is on the island reefs of Utila and the second on the coastal barrier reef of Tela. At both sites, teams of Opwall scientists and students collect annual monitoring data to assess temporal patterns of ecosystem change, alongside novel research to address key management priorities and gaps in our current understanding of tropical marine coastal ecosystem function.
In the cloud forest of Cusuco National Park it can get warm in open areas (temperatures up to 20 degrees Celsius) but much cooler in the shade of the forest. Overnight the temperature can drop below 10 degrees Celsius at higher altitudes. It rarely rains in the morning but it regularly rains late in the afternoon and overnight. Our marine sites are hot and usually dry, but with occasional storms.
Fitness level required
Medium – High in Cusuco. You will need to hike from camp to camp for up to 5 hours with your backpack over steep terrain. At the marine site some fitness is required for in water activities, but conditions are relatively easy.
Facilities in Cusuco are very basic (tents, hammocks, river showers, basic trench toilets). There is no cell phone signal in Cusuco National Park and very limited satellite internet available through a communal laptop at Base Camp. Marine site facilities are comfortable but basic. There is phone signal and limited wifi that is often unreliable.