In addition to housing a large collection of ancient Mayan ruins, the Selva Maya is one of the largest remaining strongholds of endangered mammals such as jaguar and tapir and is an important biological corridor for a wide variety of species. Opwall is based in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (CBR) located in the Yucatan Peninsula. CBR is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of both culture and nature – a prestigious award that only 32 reserves in the world have received. In conjunction with the reserve management team and their project partners Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan, Operation Wallacea has developed ecotourism and sustainable agriculture projects with local Mayan communities in the buffer zone of the reserve so that they can live in harmony with the forest ecosystem. The data collected by students is being used to monitor the efficacy of these projects in protecting the forest and its wildlife and to increase our knowledge of the abundance, diversity and distribution of large mammals, birds, bats, butterflies, reptiles and amphibians.
The second week of the expedition will be run from the marine research site operated by Operation Wallacea in Akumal, a popular tourist spot due to the beautiful beaches, coral reefs and permanent presence of turtles. Tourism provides income for local fishing communities that were previously over-fishing the reefs, but tourism is having a huge impact on the marine ecosystem. The primary aim of the Operation Wallacea project is to assess the impact of tourism on the reefs, seagrasses and turtle population and to provide guidelines for sustainable dive and snorkel based tourism. During this week students will mainly be completing dive training or the reef ecology course (if already dive certified or only snorkelling), but will also contribute to ongoing data collection. During in-water practicals (diving or snorkelling) students could assist with coral reef surveys and sea grass assessment quadrats (food supply for the resident turtles).
The teams will spend their time in the jungle field camps distributed across the Calakmul Reserve, with a day visit to a Mayan archaeological site. During their week in the Mayan jungle the students will complete activities as follows:
Introduction to the Ancient Maya: Includes a visit to the breathtaking Calakmul ruins, and information relating to the effect of ancient Mayan agroforestry on tree and wildlife diversity in the reserve. Jungle skills training: Learning how to design a field camp and work safely in a jungle environment, navigation using a compass and learning to use a GPS. Exercises designed to teach how to make a shelter, find food and water, make a fire and cook in the forest.
Habitat surveys: Students will work alongside the habitat survey team to mark and then survey 20m x 20m forest quadrats. Surveys will involve numbering all trees for subsequent species identification, measuring the diameter at breast height (DBH) of each tree, the abundance and height distribution of understorey vegetation, leaf litter depth, canopy openness and measures of forest regenerations.
Bird surveys: The students will be helping the survey teams with assessing bird communities from point counts and mist net surveys where the students will learn how to identify birds in the hand and take morphometric measurements.
Bat mist netting: Mist nets are used to sample the bat communities and all bats captured are identified. Students are shown how captured bats are removed, handled, identified and morphometric measurements recorded.
Herpetofauna surveys: The reptile and amphibian communities will be assessed from visual encounter surveys along forest transects and active searching and pitfall trapping in and around aguadas (temporary and permanent lakes that are the only water sources in the reserve). Species will be identified, weighed, measured and GPS coordinates taken.
Large mammal surveys: These are conducted using line transect surveys for the species where visual encounters can be used (e.g. primates) and on patch occupancy analysis for those species recorded by tracks or droppings (e.g. jaguar, tapirs). Students will also be shown how camera trapping is being used to estimate population levels of species’ use of aguadas.
Students also complete a Mayan forest ecology and conservation course including lectures on the following topics: Conservation, Operation Wallacea and the Calakmul monitoring project, biodiversity gradients and methods for biodiversity monitoring, endemism, biodiversity hotspots and forest structure in Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, herpetofauna, butterflies and adaptation, neotropical birds and neotropical mammals.
During their marine week the students will be completing one of the following options:
Students may also participate in the following activities:
The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (CBR) in Mexico is an UNESCO World Heritage Site of Culture and Nature and is part of the largest expanse of neotropical forest north of the Amazon, filled with ancient Mayan ruins and supporting one of the highest biodiversity levels in the world. The CBR is also an extremely important wildlife corridor that is crucial for migrating birds and animals with extensive ranging patterns such as jaguar and Baird’s tapir. Over the last 10 years the reserve has experienced a notable reduction in rainfall. Monitoring data on birds, bats, herpetofauna, butterflies, ungulates, felids
and primates are being used to evaluate the impact of climate change and changing rainfall patterns on the abundance, ranging and diversity of fauna to help determine when and where mitigation should be used to restore water sources. Data are also used to assess the efficacy of a range of sustainable development projects with buffer zone communities designed to minimise forest encroachment. In addition, there are specialist studies on jaguar and their preferred prey, behaviour of spider monkeys and population levels of Morelet’s crocodiles.
Akumal is a small coastal town located approximately 2 hours’ drive south from the major tourist destination of Cancun. The name Akumal literally means “home of the turtles” in Mayan. It earned this name due to the numerous turtle nesting sites along the beaches and the permanent presence of juvenile turtles in the seagrasses just off shore. Prior to established tourism in the Yucatan, the only real source of income was from fishing. The reefs were so heavily overfished that the entire ecosystem almost collapsed. Moreover, sea turtles and their eggs were a major food source rather than an attraction to be admired, resulting in a serious decline in the turtle population. In an attempt to save the reef ecosystem and provide alternative income for local people, dive and snorkel based tourism was actively encouraged by the Mexican government. Tourism in the area has steadily increased over the last 20 years, but now it has brought problems of its own. More hotels are being built to accommodate tourists leading to loss of important nesting habitat for turtles, loss of mangrove habitat that cleans water and prevents sediment from washing onto the reef, and too many people snorkelling with turtles.
At the marine site, the research is focussed on assessing the efficacy of the newly formed Akumal marine protected area on the abundance and health of seagrasses and the impact of snorkel tours on the abundance, health and behaviour of sea turtles. The new protected area also provides the opportunity for recovery of the coral reefs, but as natural coral recovery rates are so slow, we are assisting the process by attaching coral fragments to artificial reefs composed of different substrates of varying structural complexity in order to assess the best methods for coral reef restoration in the region. Combined with mapping and monitoring of the existing reefs we are able to determine the positive impact of the new protected area on the coral reef ecosystem. Another aim of the Akumal project is to monitor the impact of mangrove degradation on the adjacent reefs and to investigate the ecology of the unique mangroves surrounding sink holes (cenotes) connected to the underground river system that runs throughout the Yucatan Peninsula.
The costs of a school group expedition can be highly variable. There is a standard fee paid to Opwall for all expeditions but the location you are flying from, the size of your group, and how you wish to pay all impact the overall cost.
You can choose to book the expedition as a package (which includes your international flights) or you can organise your travel yourself and just pay us for the expedition related elements.
If you are booking your expedition as a package, you also have the option of being invoiced as a group, or on an individual basis.
In Mexico it is hot and humid. Temperatures rarely drop below mid 20s even at night. It is unlikely to rain much, but you do get occasional heavy showers during the season.
Fitness level required
Medium in the forest, low on the marine site. There are some reasonably long walks through the forest, terrain varies by camp with some being almost completely flat and others more undulating. On the marine site lower levels of fitness are required (although you will likely be very tired at the end of the day after the in-water sessions).
Facilities in the forest are basic (sleeping in tents or hammocks in a camp site), with a mixture of dry and trench toilets. There are freshwater showers but water conservation is particularly important to bear in mind. There are some limited opportunities to buy snacks at some forest camps and there is no phone signal at any of the sites. On the marine site the facilities are a little less rustic – you sleep in bunk beds in dormitories about 10 minutes drive from the beach. There is good phone signal and the site is well supplied with shops.