As our motorboat quietly drifted down the Amazon River, it was lit by the morning sun through a canopy of dense rainforest foliage. In the weeks preceding this moment, our group of Holliston High School (HHS) students had journeyed beyond the equator, to a place isolated from the trappings of the first world and of civilization itself. Through my eyes, this voyage was an opportunity for adventure and personal growth. Looking back now, almost a year later, I see that opportunity as thoroughly seized.
For six years now, HHS has offered its students the chance to spend three weeks of their summer in an extraordinary way, by traveling to Peru in order to experience the riverside city of Iquitos, and accompany a team of field scientists and college students in collecting ecological data along the banks of the Amazon. The latter of these objectives is done through Operation Wallacea, a research organization that uses student volunteers to conduct important long term studies in the fields of conservation and ecology.
Organized by Holliston science teachers Ms. Sylvia Bodmer and Ms. Karen Carig-O’Neill, HHS’s involvement in this program has allowed dozens of students to explore aspects of culture and science that are impossible to replicate in a classroom environment. While Ms. Bodmer plans most of the details of the time in Iquitos, Ms. Carig-O’Neill manages matters of student and parent outreach, ensuring that each prospective traveler remains informed and prepared to embark into the jungle.
“I think it’s so important to give kids that chance,” said Dylan Slade, a Holliston junior who was a part of the 2017 Peru expedition. “To go to a different country with the people you know. To learn about stuff in a way you’ve never learned about it before.”
In the summer of 2017, I was also fortunate enough to be a part of this once in a lifetime trip. On June 20, our group of 29 students and four former or current HHS teachers departed from Logan airport to Lima, where we took a smaller plane to Iquitos, an Amazonian metropolis accessible only by air or by riverboat. We spent three nights in the city, before traveling two days down the river to the research site in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, from which we helped conduct surveys for two full weeks while living on a restored Victorian riverboat.
The majority of these surveys entailed the collection of simple wildlife data along the banks of the river or on a number of “transects,” which were charted paths through areas of rainforest that are continuously monitored in order to create long term, consistent data sets.
Survey teams consist not only of high school students, but also ecologists, biologists, college students, and local guides, who all work together to ensure that data is collected reliably and safely. The work of these surveys includes counting sightings of monkeys, macaws, frogs, caimans, and river dolphins, as well of a number of other fascinating variations of local flora and fauna.
While Operation Wallacea began its activity by monitoring wildlife populations in Indonesia as far back as 1995, in 2003 the project expanded to a site in Honduras, where it began to employ the strategy of establishing and maintaining similarly operated survey sites in locations around the world, rather than relying on isolated studies.
Since then, the organization has established sites in 16 regions globally, allowing them to collect affordable, comparable, and reliable long term data sets for ecosystems in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. Since its creation, this organization has resulted in 330 scientific publications, and contributed greatly to conservation efforts in surveyed areas, which opwall.com refers to as their “ultimate goal.”
In a phone interview with Dr. Tim Coles, the president and founder of Operation Wallacea, he explained the decision to directly involve high school students in this research by allowing them to join scientists and college students in the collection of critical scientific data.
“Basically, the reason was we needed the manpower,” said Dr. Coles. “We took a couple of schools and we trained them and we then tested them and compared the results to university students. As a matter of fact, the high school students were doing better.”
During our stay in Iquitos, our group spent the days going out on excursions into the surrounding area, the subject matter of which encompassed the tragically human to the wildly animal. These trips included tours of the impoverished Belen slums and market, a trip to the Monkey Island primate sanctuary, and visits to a number of other animal conservation centers near the city.
These excursions were all made possible by HHS science department head and chemistry teacher Ms. Bodmer, who organizes every activity undertaken during the stay in Iquitos. Due to the local research and conservation efforts of her brother, Dr. Richard Bodmer, who owns the small hotel at which we stayed, Ms. Bodmer has developed strong connections in the city, which have allowed her to expand the trip to include the aforementioned activities.
“We get a lot of perks,” said Ms. Bodmer of her brother’s involvement with the program. “Because I know the area, and because of him, we do those extra days, which I think add a richness to the trip.”
It is because of this connection that the Peru expedition was chosen by HHS, as the decision was originally inspired by Ms. Bodmer’s encounters with other school groups during her independent time in the region.
Despite the financial relief provided by these contacts, the price of the trip still remains substantial, totalling at about $3,200 per student. Out of this cost, $1,900 goes to Operation Wallacea, a fee that covers living accomodations for the student, and is the sole source of income for the organization, which goes towards funding hundreds of research projects at all of their sites worldwide. While this sum may seem enormous at first, on closer inspection it becomes clear that this is in fact a reasonable price.
“If you compare it, there’s nothing like it that’s as inexpensive. To do the amount of travel we do,” said Ms. Bodmer. “But it is expensive in terms of the dollar amount.”
In the phone interview, Dr. Coles also contributed his thoughts on the perceived socioeconomic barrier that this cost creates.
“We’re very keen to have students that can’t afford to come,” said Dr. Coles, before delving into the possibilities for student fundraising. “The difference between a rich kid and a poor kid is basically time. If they’ve got time and organization, they can make it back out for the funding. And a number do.”
Regardless of whether the cost for the student is monetary, or temporal, for most, going on such a trip entails a sacrifice of some kind. This of course prompts the question of what students would find the experience to be worthy of such considerable expenses. Both of the students interviewed believed that the trip was worth it for them, despite the fact that neither of them plan on pursuing careers in the fields of biology or ecology.
“I don’t think you need to be a particular type of student to be interested in the trip,” said Michael O’Sullivan, another Holliston junior from the 2017 expedition. “If you’re interested in travel, if you’re interested in South American culture in general, or if you’re interested in the field of biology, this trip appeals to you.”
One type of traveler, however, that Operation Wallacea discourages from embarking on such an expedition, is those who would view the trip as some sort of luxurious vacation.
“What we don’t want are holiday makers,” said Dr. Coles, when asked who he would recommend the trip to. “When we give the presentation, you probably notice that it didn’t sound too good. It’s done deliberately to try to shake the holiday makers out.”
On the other hand, trips such as these can reap incomparable benefits for those who recognize them as the taxing yet rewarding opportunities that they are. Many alumni of the trip, including myself, have credited the experience with an increase in overall confidence and a change of perspective on the wold at large.
“There’s this confidence that you get from traveling that the world doesn’t feel so big and so foreign, and I think that’s so important,” said Ms. Bodmer. “I feel like it’s a great experience, and it’s a huge confidence builder. You know when you fly, and you live with other people in the cabins… college is gonna be easy compared to that.”
feature image by Emily Howland