After arriving at 2am in Cancun, taking the coldest shower we could manage, and collapsing onto our beds, we awoke to a 10-hour journey down the Mexican country to the heart of the Calakmul biosphere. Among the tents, butterflies and walking boots emerged a group of eco warriors: grubby yet bright-eyed scientists from all around the world. Having already been there for eight weeks they were hardened to the 40 degree heat, intense humidity and unrelenting mosquitos, yet enlivened to the wonders and beauty that was everywhere we looked. From the squawking toucans in the canopy above, to the poisonous yet colourful caterpillars that crawled around us, it seemed as if the jungle was never still and never ever quiet. We quickly made friends with the scientists: the herpetologists, mammal experts and botanists that were united to face the demanding and crucial research essential to conserving the biosphere and its wildlife.
Through Operation Wallacea we conducted surveys on the wildlife and the plants that surrounded it, hiking three times a day along transects, collecting data about the biodiversity and carbon storage potential in the surrounding vicinity. We stayed up till 3am to study bats, catching Operation Wallacea’s first False Vampire Bat and working with National Geographic’s survey team to determine the extent of the local bat colonies in the area. Some days we got up at 4am to conduct bird surveys, measuring wingspan and weight so we could log all of our data at the end of the day. This data contributes to research which is then published to support applications to the United Nations REDD Fund, for grants to further conservation efforts in the Yucatan Peninsular.
On the Friday we visited the Mayan Ruins: a UNESCO World Heritage Site, rich in culture and intrigue. When climbing to the top of the hundreds of steps, after fainting from the effort, we saw the breath-taking view of trees outstretched in every single direction, even reaching Belize and Guatemala. We saw lizards, geckos, snakes, monkeys, crocodiles, birds, tarantula hawks and enough insects for one person’s lifetime. On the camera traps we even saw bigger mammals such as peccary, leopards, jaguars and tapir. The cameras caught everything, even those who felt the need to respond to nature’s call in the middle of the jungle, when we were 40km from the nearest toilet! After a week of surviving the swarms of killing bees, the glare of crocodiles and the rabies-infected vampire bats, we set off towards our next destination: Akumal.
Moving in to the dorms in Operation Wallacea’s marine site, we were thankful for the return of cold drinking water and the comfort of a bed. After an evening of welcome with more, slightly cleaner scientists we were introduced the next day to Turtle Bay itself. Here, we would learn to do surveys while scuba diving, gaining our PADI qualification among the incredible sea life of the Akumal beaches. Diving down 18m amidst the turtles, angel fish, parrot fish and even barracuda, we were forced to realise the extent of conservation work that needed to be done in order to protect these fascinating creatures. In the mornings and evenings we had two hour lectures from experts on coral reefs. To further our research throughout the week, we also ran group projects on critical issues such as aquarium trade and the effects of tourism on turtles, which we presented at the science fair at the end of our stay.
Mexico, for all of us, was an extraordinary, challenging and inspiring trip, exceeding our high expectations and providing us with life-long memories and friends. It aided students who are now at university studying biology, giving them an amazing insight into their future prospects, while encouraging the rest of us to carry on with conservation efforts, opening our eyes to the work people are doing all across the globe, facing one of the world’s most pressing problems. We would like to say a huge thank you to the school community for your aid in fundraising projects and especially to the three teachers that accompanied us along the way. We couldn’t have done it without you!
By Matthew Conley, 13L and Abigail Kelly, 13N