Mexico - School expeditions - Operation Wallacea

Mexico – School expeditions

Mexico Schools Booklet 2018

Structure of the expedition

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 will assist with abundance surveys of lionfish (an invasive species), sea urchins (important grazers that maintain coral health) and sea grasses (food supply for the resident turtles).

Forest week

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.

Marine week

During their marine week the students will be completing one of the following options:

  • A full PADI Open Water dive training course
  • Completion of a Caribbean reef ecology course consisting of lectures and in water practicals either by diving (if a qualified diver) or snorkelling. The lectures cover an introduction to coral reef ecosystem (characteristics of a reef, reef formation), coral and algal species (growth forms and common species), mangrove and seagrass ecology (importance of connective systems, threats to mangroves), economically important invertebrates (lobster fishery, aquarium trade), identification of coral reef fish (main reef fish families), reef survey techniques (quadrats, transects, stereo video), threats to and conservation of reefs (Akumal case study, other marine protected areas in Caribbean)
  • Completion of a PADI Open Water referral course (students need to arrive having completed their theory and pool training) which takes the first 3 days and they then join the Caribbean reef ecology course.

Students will also participate in the following activities:

Monitoring of sea urchins, turtles and key fish species on the reefs

Seagrass and juvenile green turtle monitoring via snorkelling in Akumal Bay.


Mexico 1



In the forest, camps have communal eating and lecture areas. Accommodation is in shared tents and there are dry toilets and cold running or bucket showers.


During the second week students stay outside of Akumal in perpuse built accommodation in a forest setting. They will sleep in bunk beds with dormitories spread across three floors. Rooms are shared with up to 14 people. Each dormitory has its own shower and toilet block. There is a communal eating area and lecture areas on each floor.