Operation Wallacea (Opwall) is an organisation that runs biological and social science research expeditions in a variety of remote locations around the world – Indonesia, Honduras, Egypt, Cuba, South Africa, Mozambique and Peru. The expeditions are designed with wildlife conservation in mind, and provide a fantastic opportunity for students to experience something different for their summer.
University students can join the expeditions for 2-8 weeks as Research Assistants or as dissertation students. Research Assistants help the academic teams to gather data on a range of different terrestrial and marine research projects, as well as completing training courses. Not much prior knowledge is needed for this, so you don’t have to be a science student to take part. Dissertation Students conduct their own project on-site, with the help of a supervisor.
I spent eight weeks in Honduras last summer as a Research Assistant – the first six weeks on projects in the cloud forest in Cusuco National Park. Jungle training is a requirement for all volunteers who will be working in the forest sites, and teaches you how to operate safely in remote areas – this includes navigation with compasses, cooking your own food, setting up camp with minimal forest disturbance, and of course an awful lot of hiking! We were even shown how to build a natural shelter, as well as how to gather our own food and water in the case of separation from the group. It was tough, but enjoyable, and we all really bonded as we struggled to light a fire with damp wood so that we could eat our rations!
It was strange doing lab work in such a non-sterile environment (once a lizard fell onto the table as we worked!)
As a Research Assistant I was able to choose which projects I would like to help out with. These included mist netting with the bird team, where we would catch birds, weigh and measure them, and then let them go by hand; and light trapping with the invertebrate team, where we used light traps to catch moths, praying mantises and jewel scarab beetles. Possibly the smelliest data collection I did was for a forensics student, who was studying which invertebrates are attracted to corpses – she had three dead pigs surrounded by pitfall traps in different locations in the forest, and our job was to collect the bugs in the traps that had been attracted by the scent of rotting flesh. The day I volunteered for this, the pigs had been outside for eighteen days, and smelled disgusting!
There was a genetics lab in the forest base camp where scientists were building up a catalogue of DNA for various species in the park. We learned how to survey the various plants and animals and collect material for DNA extraction. It was strange doing lab work in such a non-sterile environment (once a lizard fell onto the table as we worked!) and it was often so dark in there during the day that we had to wear head torches to load our gels, but I still managed to get results from samples such as bat swabs and beetle legs.
My favourite forest project was the howler monkey project, as the howlers were so used to humans that they mostly ignored us – there were nine different troops, and we could get really close to observe their behaviour as they interacted with each other. A dissertation student was studying their vocalisations when I was there – we would sometimes get up at 3.30am and set up the recording equipment near the troops, and record their howls as the sun rose.
I spent my last two weeks on marine projects in the Caribbean Sea. Volunteers have a choice of two marine sites – on Cayo Menor, which is a protected and uninhabited island, although it has a scientific research centre, or on Utila, which is an island developed for dive-based tourism. Both sites are surrounded by reefs. I went to Cayo Menor, lured by the promise of unspoiled sandy beaches and the extremely rare pink boa constrictor snakes that inhabit the forest in the middle of the island.
During my time on the island I learned how to scuba dive, completing my PADI Open Water and Advanced Open Water training. I cannot think of a more beautiful place to try diving for the first time – and as an added bonus, the Open Water training was free, and the Advanced Open Water training was relatively cheap. I also did a course in Caribbean Reef Ecology, where I learned to identify many species that I would see on the reefs, as well as learning survey techniques. This training meant that we could help to gather data when we went diving on the reefs, which would go to the Honduran Coral Reef Foundation.
Operation Wallacea has a policy of social and environmental responsibility that ensures the projects have minimal negative impact on the environment and benefit the local communities. Food and supplies are purchased locally when possible, locals are employed as guides, cooks, etc. I spent two weeks in Buenos Aires where we stayed with locals – this meant they were paid, but also that we got to experience life in a Honduran village, very different to living on a campsite! We also got the chance to teach English to the local children (or attempt to, anyway!)