Stars Over the Amazon: Amazon Riverboat Expedition

Vancouver, BC | Posted: May 5th, 2016

Earthwatch Amazon Cruise

Stars Over the Amazon: Amazon Riverboat Expedition

August 20, 2014

By SEEtheWILD traveler Judy Bradshaw

In August 2013 I flew to Iquitos, Peru to meet a group of volunteers participating in a project to study biodiversity in the Amazon Rainforest in northern Peru for fifteen days. The project was headed by Dr. Richard Bodmer, a conservation biologist, who worked at the University of Kent in England. Dr. Bodmer has been doing studies in the Amazon since 1984 with a slew of Peruvian biologists and others who were interested in rainforest ecology, especially related to climate change.

Canoeing down the Amazon River EXPLORING A TRIBUTARY. PHOTO – EARTHWATCH INSTITUTE

We were there to act as inexpert hands while we lived on a boat and chose various activities supervised by the biologists. We lived for the week on the Ayapua, a refurbished boat built in 1906 during the rubber boom which had been used to transport rubber out of the area.  It fell into disuse as other materials and other countries became more profitable to use in the rubber trade.

We were very fortunate to be on this last voyage of the Ayapua which was to be converted into a maritime museum to be docked in Iquitos. Our group was small, only seven of us, so we each had our own room. There were three single American women (from Denver, Houston, Portland), a Scottish couple, and a woman and man from Australia who did not come together. After meeting in Iquitos and staying at the Casa Morey Hotel, our group of 7 from around the world took a bus about two hours upstream where we boarded the Ayapua and then cruised another day and a half upstream on the Marañon  River, a tributary of the Amazon.  We eventually anchored at the mouth of the Samiria River where it flowed into the Marañon. This is an area very rich in wildlife and especially plentiful in fish that attracted much of the wildlife. There were several Cocama Indian villages in the area. We anchored there for about a week and then traveled a short distance upstream and anchored for another week.

AYAPUA RESEARCH BOAT THE AYAPUA RESEARCH BOAT. PHOTO BY EARTHWATCH INSTITUTE.

Our living quarters were comfortable, the food was good (wonderful fish), and the staff was competent and kind. There was even a nurse on board who tended to a few of us with our colds and various other ailments. We had air conditioning in our rooms and in the dining room. The generator was turned off at 11 pm and back on at 6 am.  The jungle was hot, humid, buggy, and we covered up and wore head nets if we were doing any of the land transects. We used very strong insect repellant which seemed to help. Maybe.

Our daily activities looked like this:

• 5:30/6:30 am – 9 am:  Macaws or water birds which involved counting birds using a GPS unit while traveling in a motorized canoe.

• 7 am-noon:  Terrestrial transect in which we took a boat to an area and slowly walked in 1.5 km (about a mile) and then back out, while observing and counting terrestrial animals (mainly monkeys, some birds).

• 9:30 am – noon:  Fish survey which involved going setting up a 50m net for one hour and using rods to fish. The fish were gathered, placed in buckets of water, identified, weighed and measured, and then released.

• 2-4 pm:  Frog transect which involved walking on land and turning over leaf litter with sticks and watching tiny frogs hop up. These were identified, weighed and measured and then released by the frog biologists.

• 3-5 pm:  Dolphin survey in a motorized boat, counting the gray and pink river dolphins. The gray dolphins liked to leap in the air; the pink dolphins didn’t.

• 4-6 pm:  Macaw and waterbird survey, depending on the one that we didn’t do in the morning.

In the evenings, we had a Happy Hour, dinner, and then met to discuss the day’s results. There was also an option to participate in night projects which involved going out in a boat and counting caiman or water frogs using a giant spotlight to see them.

So…what did we volunteers do? We did what they told us to do.  We recorded, counted, observed, and entered the data in the computer in the library when we returned to the Ayapua. We talked to each other and the biologists and looked at the incredible surroundings and wildlife and fell into bed exhausted every night.  Mostly we worked.  At the end of the trip, Richard complimented us on being such a hard-working group.

Highlights of the trip:

The neotropical cormorants were migrating through from July through September.  No one knows where they come from or where they go.  One morning, on a 12 km. boat ride, we counted twenty-two thousand of them roosting in trees.  Yep.

The gray river dolphins hunt in pods and drive the schools of fish into the shore and then move in a feeding frenzy. The fish explode into the air…silver in the sun with the dolphins below churning the water, leaping and gulping. We also saw a pair of giant river otters and their two babies…the first that have been seen in the area in years. The ban on hunting them is working. Richard was ecstatic.

We participated in the anniversary celebration of the founding of Bolivar village fifty-one years before. Twenty-six families lived there.  We watched soccer games and drank a fermented manioc drink from shells and had simple conversations with the Cocama Indians who were kind to us and didn’t treat us like anything special, a relief after the many other tours I have taken We later returned to the village and gave the children school supplies we had brought for them.  It was wonderful sitting with them, being just one of the troop in the Amazon rainforest.

Doing the early morning bird counts, in the quiet dawn.  There is nothing like Dawn on the Amazon with the mist rising over the water, the pink sky and the howler monkeys howling.  In the afternoon there is nothing like Afternoon on the Amazon with the heat and bugs.  In the evening there is nothing like Dusk on the Amazon as the heat breaks and the sun disappears.  In the night when standing on the deck looking up, there is nothing like the stars over the Amazon.  Nothing.

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