Cuba – School Expeditions

Cuba is home to a wealth of ecosystems and wildlife. However, the country has reached an important crossroads, with the thawing of diplomatic isolation opening the doors for mass tourism in the coming years. It is critical that the tourism industry grows in a sustainable and ecologically minded way, focusing on the stunning natural world Cuba has to offer rather than exploiting it for economic wealth.

Structure of the expedition

Groups choosing to come to Cuba can opt for either a two-week marine only expedition based on the Isle of Youth, or, a two-week terrestrial only expedition located at the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park Field Centre on the main island.

Isle of Youth Expedition: 2 week marine only

Collaborating with scientists from Havana University, to date, Opwall has focused its research efforts on the reefs and coastal habitat on the southern side of the Isle of Youth. The western end of the island has been designated as the Punta Frances Marine National Park, and a large section of the southern part of the island has been proposed as a Sustainable Use and Protected Area. Working alongside the Centre for Marine Research at the University of Havana, Opwall’s objectives include the long term monitoring of reef fish community diversity and biomass, annual assessments of reef benthic health, population assessments of manatees and identifications of their preferred feeding areas, and surveying populations of sharks and other large predatory fish.

Week 1 – Training week

If students are not already certified, the first week will be spent learning to dive. Students that are already certified, or those that opt to snorkel, will complete a series of in-water practicals designed to train them in some of the survey techniques used in their second week. All expedition participants will also complete the Caribbean coral reef ecology course in their first week.

  • PADI Open Water dive training course: This course involves a combination of theory lessons, confined water dives, and open water dives to gain an official scuba diving qualification.
  • Caribbean coral reef ecology course: This course teaches identification of common genera and species of coral and other macroinvertebrates, identification of the major reef-associated fish families and common species and introduces a variety of methods and practices used for scientific research in the marine environment.

Week 2 – Research week

During the second week students will rotate between a number of projects that will enable them to gain an understanding of survey techniques used by coral reef scientists. The projects available include:

  • Reef fish surveys: This project involves diving to complete the stereo video reef fish surveys of the reef fish communities. Once video data have been collected the students are involved in the identification and measurement of the species from analysis of the video to calculate biomass.
  • Coral surveys: Students will dive or snorkel to complete video line intercept surveys on the reefs. Back on land videos are analysed by students to identify the benthic organisms intercepting the line and calculate total coral and macroalgal cover at each site.
  • Coastal fish communities and recruitment: Seine nets will be deployed close to the beach to explore fish usage of the intertidal zone. Light traps will also be use to assess larval populations in coastal waters.
  • Sharks and large carnivores: Baited remote camera drops will be used to assess densities of sharks and other large carnivores as part of the Global FinPrint Project. When conditions allow, baited long lines will also be set from the Felipe Poey Research Ship to tag and release sharks.
  • Invasive lionfish dissection: This involves dissections of speared lionfish to examine size, class, structure, stomach contents and other morphological and physiological characteristics.
  • Manatee surveys and capture: The manatee surveys are conducted in the mangrove channels and lagoons using side scan sonar surveys and observational transects. The position of all sighted manatees are logged and environmental data collected. In addition the movement of manatees is being studied using marked animals and students will be helping with manatee captures using nets. Any manatees captured will be measured, the sex determined, DNA and blood samples taken and the animal marked before release.

Cuba Teacher


Time is split between the Colony Hotel and accommodation in the local village of La Victoria. The hotel has A/C, swimming pool, showers and many of the luxuries you would not expect on an Operation Wallacea research expedition! Breakfast and dinner are taken at the hotel with packed lunches provided for the field team. La Victoria has small houses with dormitory style rooms, A/C and running water. Food will be provided by the local community, giving students the unique opportunity to spend one or more nights on the University of Havana research ship (a converted fishing boat) the Felipe Poey, where available. The boat is fitted with berths below deck, although most choose to sleep under the stars on deck.

Baracoa Expedition: 2 week forest focused

The Alejandro de Humboldt National Park is the only significant rainforest area in Cuba, and is a terrestrial biodiversity hotspot for the entire Caribbean, with National Park and Biosphere Reserve status. In the 1990s the Cuban government planned their largest hydroelectric project in the park, damming Cuba’s largest river and flooding thousands of hectares of pristine forest. A group of biologists wrote to Fidel Castro explaining the biodiversity value of the park and Fidel was so impressed he ended the project immediately! However, the area is home to Cuba’s most valuable metal reserves, meaning biologists are battling with ever expanding industrialism on the fringes of the park. The aim of Opwall’s new collaboration with local Cuban conservationists would be to help ensure that growing tourism to the park is conducted sustainably with maximised benefits going to the local communities.

Over the course of the two week expedition, groups participate in the following surveys and activities alongside the team of Cuban scientists:

  • Jungle skills training: Learning how to survey safely in the jungle, identify animal signs, estimating distances, navigation using a compass and learning to use a GPS.
  • Bird surveys: The students will be helping survey teams with assessing bird communities from point counts and mist net surveys where the students will learn how to identify birds in the hands and take morphometric measurements.
  • Herpetofauna surveys: Students will work with Cuba’s leading expert to explore community diversity and distribution patterns, as well as population estimates of key species. Surveys include standard search times and spotlighting for amphibians.
  • Invertebrate surveys: Light traps will be used at night along with flight intercept and sweep net surveys during the day. Students will also use mark recapture methods to quantify populations of endemic snails.
  • Forest structure: Groups will mark and survey 20m x 20m forest quadrats. 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.
  • Marine environmental profiling: The adjacent waters of Taco Bay have never been studied, and students will help an expert team characterising the bay’s environmental conditions and habitat distributions.
  • Marine biodiveristy surveys: Students will join snorkel and boat surveys to complete assessments of fish and invertebrate communities. These data will be used to produce a species guide for visitors to the Park.


The Alejandro de Humboldt National Park Field Centre is located on a hillside overlooking the beautiful waters of Taco Bay. Consisting of a series of basic, traditionally structured buildings, accommodation is in large domitory style rooms with fans, with an adjacent shower and toilet block. Food is provided by local staff in a covered seating area that will also be used for lectures and practicals. The majority of survey work will be conducted in the surrounding forest via hiking, but students will also participate in snorkelling and boat practicals in Taco Bay.