This expedition starts with three weeks in the cloud forests of Cusuco National Park; a site which has been listed in a review of 173,000 protected areas in the world as being in the top 50 most important sites to conserve. The first week is spent learning to live safely in the forest during a jungle survival course (can include a canopy access course for an additional cost) and a lecture course with practicals on Neotropical forest ecology. The next two weeks will be working with the largest group of forest researchers we have at any site, on projects as diverse as bird mist netting surveys, determining chytrid infection rates within amphibians, calculating the carbon content of the forest and light trapping for moths, alongside many other projects. For at least one of these weeks the team will be helping out in one of the more remote satellite camps. The last week you will be based at the Opwall marine research camps in either Utila or Tela completing a PADI Open Water dive training course or a coral reef ecology and marine survey methods course with practicals by diving (if already trained) or snorkelling.
The forests of Central America are some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world, partly because they are the meeting point of two great faunas – those from North America and those from South America – which have 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 coral reefs, including the mass mortality of keystone sea urchins that have allowed algal colonisation of reef areas, an invasive predator (lionfish) originally from the Indo-Pacific that has spread across the Caribbean, and overfishing of reef fish by local communities. Opwall has two marine research sites in Honduras where these issues and many more are studied: 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 in reef community health, alongside novel research to address key conservation priorities and gaps in our current understanding of these fragile ecosystems. Honduras is also home to Opwall’s pioneering efforts to integrate technological solutions into the monitoring and study of coral reefs, including our 3D computer modelling method. Opwall’s team of marine scientists in Honduras helps to support not only international academic research and new method development, but also supports local non-governmental organisations with their efforts to improve marine conservation in Honduras.
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.