Stories from the Field: Amazon Riverboat Exploration
Mary Ellen Rowe is a former Earthwatch expedition coordinator and a veteran of 28 expeditions, including Amazon Riverboat Exploration in 2010.
Amazon Riverboat Exploration.
The boat slides away from the dock and I feel like giving a cheer—on our way at last. Immediately we are treated to views of a broad and ever-changing Amazon and the people who live along its banks.
Malene (Earthwatch senior expedition advisor) and I retrieve our luggage from LAN Peru. It’s been baptized with some sort of fish sauce, and we spend the rest of the journey letting it air out outside our cabin.
Tip No. 1: Always line your duffel bag with plastic bags.
We are met at the airport by Mark, tall and handsome, but a bit perplexed as some of the information about our flights hasn’t reached him. Turns out that he’s been meeting every flight from Lima to Iquitos for the last several days in the hopes of finding all of us. Today will hopefully be the last day he’ll have to do this.
Malene and I have flown in with Alma, who’s missing her luggage already. After stressing to the LAN Peru people that we are departing tomorrow for two semanas (weeks) not dias (days) down the Amazon, and that it would be ever so helpful, not to mention absolutely necessary, for them to retrieve her luggage by first thing tomorrow morning, we depart for downtown Iquitos.
Tip No. 2: Always retrieve your luggage at the first port in a new country. Don’t believe the airline personnel who tell you that your baggage will be checked through Lima and on to your final destination.
The Hotel Maranon is a pleasant place to spend the night. The staff is gracious and the cool pool beckons.
Tip No. 3: Bring your earplugs to lessen the din from the ever present tuk-tuks and minibikes.
That afternoon, Malene and I hook up with Jorge, an excellent local guide, for a quick tour of the market and floating village in Belen, built to rise and fall with the tides. We stare in wonder as small children negotiate canoes that would frustrate most adults at home.
Tip No. 4: Don’t bring your CD player to the market. Especially, don’t leave it in one of those circular pockets built especially for CDs. Especially if that pocket has a habit of falling open.
We load up our bus to tour the streets of Iquitos, taking a gander at the elaborate tiled houses still in use from the rubber boom era 100 years ago. We also visit a museum where an artist somehow persuaded locals to pose for some sort of life-sized and very lifelike entire body casts. Though they have the look of pewter and are not realistically painted, the results are something Madame Tussaud can’t hold a candle to (sorry!). They even preserve the fiber of the clothing, and it is possible to identify the different groups via their clothing. Those people who come from high altitudes wear surprising caftan- or robe-like garments.
Finally, we are brought to dock and our luggage is handed down the stairs to a small ferryboat and from there to the S.S. Ayapua. She is one of the largest boats we’ll see on the river, and as we line up in the large dining room, we take note of the careful detailing of the ship - the high-backed wooden chairs, the long tables, the wallpaper, and the incongruous air conditioning. Yes, this will be, by Earthwatch standards, a comfortable expedition. At least while we’re on the boat.
It’s here that Richard Bodmer, a burly man with curling reddish hair and a beard, breaks the news: As impressive as the Ayapua looks, there have been some, uh, difficulties. To wit, there is no working motor. A tugboat-sized vehicle to the right-hand side of our bow has been commissioned to push the boat down the Amazon to the border where Peru meets Brazil and Colombia and up the Yavari to our research site. It’s a good thing, really. The extra boat gives the crew and research staff some room to stretch out a little. We check into our rooms, which are cozy, with textured wallpaper, tall armoires, and en suite bathrooms, the kind that become whole showers as soon as you tuck your towels and toilet paper safely away and turn on the shower head.
The boat slides away from the dock and I feel like giving a cheer - on our way at last. Immediately we are treated to views of a broad and ever-changing Amazon and the people who live along its banks.
When we reach deeper water, we stop to fill the water tanks, and here the next little glitch reveals itself. It turns out that the "plumber" hired in Iquitos had, let’s just say, overstated his qualifications. Richard is remarkably resourceful in dealing with the various leaks springing and showers not working, immediately instructing his crew to provide each room with buckets of water for flushing toilets and opening up the functional showers on the tugboat for our use. He also kindly opens up the wooden bar on the top deck to appease our other liquid needs. Drifting to the open-air bar, chatting, and posing for pictures against rosy sunsets become the ways we fill our days as we head for Lago Preto.
It takes four days to get to Lago Preto under the best circumstances, but the time is easily filled. We fish our binoculars and tripods out of our luggage, and conversations spring up all over the boat.
The researchers give talks, some in halting English, others quite fluently, about their work.
Tip No. 5: Bring your Spanish dictionary if you want to get to know these wonderful and dedicated people.
The comfortable top deck library is a good place to ponder the Amazon. There are several shelves on the wildlife in the trees and the waters nearby, and old tomes written by Europeans and Americans who visited the area. Some had racist attitudes, but some were surprisingly understanding of a place and peoples so radically different, at least on the surface. We stand at attention at the sides of the boat, poised with our cameras to capture the breaking of the dolphins as they appear and disappear around us. Gray or tucuxi dolphins are the easiest to spot, as they most often emerge from the water, showing off a sharp fin. Pink river dolphins are just as present, but not as apparent, sometimes coming just to the surface to lazily roll, revealing their streaky pink.
Bird-watchers keep busy staring off into whatever bank we’re closer to, searching for macaws and parrots along with the coquoi herons and egrets.
As we drift along, we stare at the locals in their encampments or on their dugout canoes, and they stare back, especially the children, who often run to the river’s edge to point and wave. We are their Saturday morning cartoons. Sometimes we have to pull over and the volunteers disembark and mingle, taking pictures of the children and showing them the results on our digital cameras.
Just watching the tops of trees reminds us of how high the water is - the highest recorded, Richard tells us, underscoring the importance of the data that will be collected during the expedition.
Once we are on the Yavari (no signs are posted-we know only because Richard points it out), we travel with Peru on our right and Brazil on our left. Richard, who spoke highly of the Brazilian military, tells us that each country has the right to board and inspect us if we are docked on their side, but that both countries can search us if we are mobile. Eventually, we are boarded by Brazilian military, guys in camouflage uniforms carrying big guns. They line us up in the dining room and demand to photograph our passports. All is grim until 84-year-old Alma confides to me in a loud stage whisper, "At least they sent handsome blokes!" That breaks the ice, and while they search our luggage, we line up to have our photos taken with them, especially one particularly handsome captain.
We arrive at Lago Preto late on April 14. That night after dinner, Richard puts up a list of possible activities for the 15th. Six volunteers are itching to do transects, those long slow slogs through beautiful, though occasionally muddy, trails. We’d all soon be itching for other reasons, but more about that later. I choose to join the macaw survey with Willy, a Peruvian student and birding expert. Shy and sweet, Willy will also prove to us that he is an expert on the dance floor during our salsa lessons.
We wake at 5 A.M. to be ready for the 5:30 A.M. boat ride. After donning bright orange life jackets, we slip onto our small boats and head down river. We start our survey 500 meters from the boat, gazing back at it through the still blue light of the predawn. The presence of a full moon only adds to the ghostly effect. Pulling in close to the overhanging trees gives us a good glimpse at heliconia and spidery white wildflowers, and our boatman, Odilio, points out to me a caterpillar cleverly mimicking a curled veined leaf. At one point, a kingfisher startles as it nears us; opening its wings wide and revealing a burnt red breast as it beats them, it reverses its course. Blue tanagers also perch nearby, and an anhinga fishes across the river, but we are not here for them.
The nice thing about macaws, parrots, and parakeets is the way they announce their presence. It’s really hard to miss them when they’re on the move. We lift our binoculars and spot two, six, or in one case, 28 macaws moving overhead. At times, it’s hard to tell the red and green macaws from the scarlets, or even the scarlets from the blue and golds against a bright sky, but their long tails make the macaws stand out from their parrot cousins.
We also enjoy the surprise of two fantail parrots at the top of a tree. Fantails are a new species recently discovered in the area. This happy couple has a nest not too far from the boat. Malene, Pilar, and I scribe, keeping track of the results, and all of us keep sharp eyes and ears out for a flash of color, a raucous call, or a moving silhouette. (Note: There’s no back support on this boat or on the fishing or caiman boats. If you’ve got a bad back, be sure to bring one of those small folding camp seats.) We would watch for 15 minutes, then head further downstream to repeat the process.
Finally, we each have encounters with another flying animal of the Amazon, the no-see-’um. These flealike creatures were not an issue the entire time that we made our way to and from the research site, as the movement of the boat kept up a stiff breeze. They were also not a problem when the small boats zipped along to the various transect points. In fact, they weren’t even a problem as they bit us because we didn’t feel them. It was only afterwards when the itching started and the welts rose that we realized we’d been had— for breakfast.
Tip No 6: A simple remedy for the biting is to keep covered by clothes. DEET is, for these guys, a tenderizer, sort of a tandoori sauce for our tasty flesh. Be warned.
After 10 surveys, we head back to the boat to relax until the dolphin survey that afternoon.
Also note: The breakfast that was supposed to be waiting for us was substantially delayed... like till lunchtime.
Tip No. 7: Bring your own snacks.
At one point Alma said to me, “They ought to have a vending machine on this boat. Wouldn’t you pay $3 for a Snickers bar right now? I’d pay $3 for a Snickers bar.”
The dolphin survey boat is quite a bit bigger than the macaw boat, with a roof overhead. We head down river with Freddie, a Peruvian student studying dolphins. It is a lovely ride, with glowing late-afternoon lighting, even a rainbow, and we enter a small inlet with overhanging vegetation that leads to a lake. Only our boat wake disturbs the tranquil reflections of towering white trunks and overpowering lianas, but we spot no dolphins and it’s taken us too long to arrive-we have to leave almost immediately.
Our ride back seems to take forever, even for someone who is loving the night sky for its spectacular star show. At one point, we spot a boat with lights (we had none) and think, "They must have sent someone to find us." The boat passes, seeing us just enough to safely negotiate around us. Despite my concern, I find myself grinning in the darkness. This expedition has a wild and woolly feel quite unlike any other I’ve been on. And eventually, the golden lights of the Ayapua gleam into view.
After dinner, we are out again at 9 P.M., this time hunting for caiman. Though his English is pretty darn good, Pedro, the student focusing on caiman, chooses to answer all our questions through Alison, our one volunteer fluent in Spanish. So convinced am I that this is a man with complete knowledge of all his entire surroundings, that I shoot him a question about dolphins: "When do they sleep?" His immediate response: "They sleep with only half their brains, so always they are somewhat on the alert for danger."
Pedro is less lucky with his caiman catching than with his dolphin answers. However, he is determined to show his audience at least what one looks like, even if he can’t catch one on his survey transect.
Generally it goes like this: one person holds a light source close to their eyes, but shining out at the water. The light tends to pick up on a membrane at the back of reptilian eyes and reflects back a red light. Some of us had stood with the copilot at the front of the boat when he was doing his sweeps for obstacles with a bright light and noticed the occasional eyes glowing back in our direction. That’s what we’re looking for.
There are three types of caiman in the Lago Preto area: white, black, and dwarf.
Though I’d always considered the caiman to be the little cousin of the crocodile, the black caiman can be 15 feet or so long. Since pulling a 15-foot reptile into a boat full of volunteers at 1 A.M., even under a near full moon, seems less than wise, Pedro and his assistants set their sights on something considerably smaller, but without luck. We finally get a good look at a couple of caiman before we give up for the night and return to the Ayapua, but Pedro’s catching and our surveying would increase greatly as the team progressed.
It’s good to get back to the boat at 1:00 A.M. or so, because I need some sleep for my first transect the next morning. The team on day 1 came back that night talking about a seven-hour hike with no snacks (See? I told you to bring your own), but they also came back with tales of....the red uakari.
The red uakari (there are also white and black ones) is a monkey about the size of a large house cat with bright orange fur, like an orangutan’s. They have a wide stump for a tail, unlike most Western Hemisphere monkeys, which have handy prehensile tails, but their most startling characteristic is their faces—they are devoid of any hair, which gives them a human-like appearance. Some people in the area avoid eating them because of this. Lago Preto is believed to have the largest population of them, perhaps as many as 500.
It turns out that we see a lot of primates. There are 14 species in the area, and over the days at the site, we would collectively see all of these: red uakari, monk saki, titi, brown capuchin, saddle-backed tamarin, mustached tamarin, black spider monkey, squirrel monkey, and woolly monkey. In addition, we heard the wonderful rousing call of the red howler on a regular basis. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Several of us pile into the dugout canoes and are paddled through the flooded forest to the start of our transect, a world of colorful fungi, spiky tree trunks, aromatic blossoms, and thigh-deep mud. Our local guide, Juan, takes the lead, Lindsey and I are in the middle, and Mirabel does the sweep. I’m ready to start scribing and monkey watching.
It doesn’t take long. Juan soon stops and cranes his neck upwards. Lindsey and I freeze and cock our ears. The sounds of crashing among leafy branches greet us and we are treated to a primate show-19 woolly monkeys and 10 uakaris are in the trees above us. They are high in the branches, silhouetted against the sky, but not so high that they don’t give away some curiosity as to our presence.
We stand in wonder and watch. At one point I gaze up as a group of monkeys line up to throw their weight on a branch, rocking back and forth till the momentum gathers and they are able to catapult into the next tree. I turn to see Lindsey leaning on her walking stick, cut for her by Juan, her face upturned and enjoying the scene. We don’t move until all 29 animals have passed, the crackling subsiding, then quickly document what we’ve seen on the data sheets.
Five babies, seen by the Peruvians but unnoticed by me, are a good sign. The previous year, only one was spotted. That year, there’d been a drought, and at night at the dinner table, there’s some speculation as to whether the monkeys’ physiology has registered the fact that it isn’t the best time to invest in offspring.
Continuing along the trail, we squelch through mud puddles, trying to stay as clean as possible, but occasionally sinking a boot. I’m grateful for my knee-high boots, and the mud isn’t the only reason.
At the end of the transect, we wait for an hour to allow the animal life to settle down, then repeat the survey on the way back. The wait at the end of the path is made more interesting by the presence of yet another famous Amazonian flying animal, the mosquito. Here covering up with clothes is ineffective. The mozzies could bite right through your fabric.
Tip No. 8: The DEET is helpful.
To distract me from slapping at myself, Lindsey points out a large, elegant dragonfly with a single bright yellow patch at the end of its wings.
As we board the boat on the way back, a much-needed shower and lunch is delayed by the presence of a swarm of butterflies of different colors and species, all large and striking. They are attracted to salt on everything, including the large baskets of clean laundry sitting in the sun. The laundry ladies must think I’m crazy, as sweaty and muddy, I lean over the clean clothes, but I get a beautiful shot of a butterfly perched atop the waistband of a pair of bright blue panties (not mine).
That night, I show off my uakari photos to anyone who will look, including Mark Bowler, who has studied them for several years. I note that the focus of one uakari, hanging upside down eating the fruit of the aguijal, is slightly off. Mark rolls his eyes. “Do you know how rare photos of these monkeys in the wild are?”
I enjoy the transects so much that I do them four days in a row, seeing every primate listed above except for the spider monkey, and seeing red uakaris every day except one, my last.
Each night, we share the day’s viewing as Richard has us report at dinner what we’ve all seen that day - a jaguar footprint, a bat disturbed from its roosting point, a giant river otter peering up at volunteers in the flooded forest, an agouti, a herd of peccaries, and in my case, a fer-de-lance, a very venomous snake. “You probably wouldn’t have died if it had bitten you,” Mark assures me that evening, “but you would have been in the hospital, and in pain, for some time.” Now you know why all volunteers from now on are required to wear knee-high rubber boots or wellies, as the Brits call them. I was initially conscious only of a big snakelike head moving in the corner of my eye. Then I was suddenly aware that the big snaky head was attached to a rather long coiled body. Apparently the snake, which is nocturnal, had been napping and was awakened by Laura and Hennis, who preceded me along the trail. Pablo, who was behind me, saw and identified the snake. Neither Laura nor Hennis saw it, and Hennis was terribly disappointed, hacking away at the nearby vegetation until Pedro persuaded him to stop, and insisting that we retreat back toward the boat. I like snakes, and I enjoy recounting this adventure, but I have to admit to being a bit shaky as I started back to the trailhead.
Tip No. 9: Bring your wellies!
My last day on the transect is a surprisingly quiet one—only a few capuchins. Walter, our guide, doesn’t want to see us disappointed. We call him the capuchin whisperer because he mimicked the call of the capuchin for other volunteers. The little monkey would approach the group of humans and look perplexed to see the rather strange-looking capuchin making the call.
Walter strips some of the surrounding saplings of their broad leaves and weaves together a piece for us, showing us how the locals create a quick rainproof shelter out of easily obtainable local resources. Pablo is quick to point out the rubber trees, some of them still having markings from the rubber tappers.
For my last workday, I do the fish survey. That morning, Lindsey, Gerry, and I are on the boat as it whizzes down to another oxbow lake. At the helm are Annie and Claudia, graduate students specializing in fish. We each are given simple tackle: a stick, a string, a hook, and some chicken or beef as bait. We sit with our lines in the water, alternating waiting patiently with slapping the stick repeatedly on the water as we’ve seen the locals do. Being close to the side of the river provides shade and allows us to enjoy the sounds in the jungle. Clearly some lories are setting up a ruckus not too far from us.
Previous boatloads of volunteers on our team have been quite successful at fishing, gleefully bringing back pails of piranhas and lively stories of their first successes. Since all the fish are brought back to the Ayapua, we make use of them during our meals. Piranha, through bony, is delicious.
However, success eludes our group. Oh, some of us imagine that we feel a tug or two, and a couple of us even lose our bait, but we catch nothing. Embarrassed, we sit and watch as Annie and one of the guides disappear to pull up previously lowered nets. Though the fishing catches primarily piranhas, the nets generally have a variety of fish. These all have to be “rescued” after only two hours because the piranhas would sense the fish struggling in the nets and feast on the captives. Annie hands us the fish, still gasping, in pails. Sure enough, one is missing its face. All need to be identified, measured, and weighed.
None of us volunteers have ever touched a live fish, but Gerry bravely tackles the job of plucking them from the bucket and lining them up against a yardstick. Annie gives the species’ name and Lindsey writes it down (thanks, Lindsey!). I then insert a hook under its gills and weigh it. Some of the fish are quite pretty, some creepy with pointy teeth. All will make for good eating.
On our last night at the research site, Malene joins the caiman hunt. She is supposed to return at 1 A.M., but at 2:15 I wake and realize that my roommate is still missing. In my pajamas I wander the ship until I find Richard and Mark listening to music at the bar. Confusion ensues as to whether or not Pedro, who had been told to bring a radio, actually has one or not. Apparently not, as they are unable to contact him, though that could have been due to topography. The zigzagging of the Yavari River makes radio transmission quite difficult. Eventually, Richard and Mark round up some guides and prepare a boat to locate the missing team.
They don’t have to go far, as the intrepid reptile surveyors are just rounding the last bend in the river at 2:30 A.M., heading for the Ayapua. It turns out that they’ve had delays due to a faulty motor. Hennis, a guide at whom we could only marvel for his superman-like strength, pulls at the overhanging vegetation to get the boat out of the oxbow lake and would have heroically paddled upstream to get back to the Ayapua, had it not been for the other guide, who in the dark and the drizzle had managed to finally get the engine started again.
We say goodbye to our remote outpost and head back down the Yavari toward the Amazon. It takes us only three days to get back, thanks to a high-speed boat commissioned by Richard, though the ride, billed as 10 hours, actually takes 15. We do have some beautiful views, and perhaps fittingly, the most incredible sunset of the trip.
For 2010, all teams will travel to the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, via the Ucayali, Maranon, and Samiria rivers. Volunteers should be aware that the threatened uakari monkey, studied on previous expeditions to the Yavari River, does not inhabit this national reserve. Other species of monkey, however, such as the capuchin and spider monkeys, may be encountered.
Learn more about Amazon Riverboat Exploration.