Wednesday November 28th, 2001
The Log today belongs to Don and Leon - both with completely different subjects.
It means that I am “off the hook” - probably just as well as the paperwork required to clear Manaus for Macapa, then Macapa for Venezuela, is proving somewhat daunting.
However, we have had a couple of nice surprises in the past 2 days - with the Port authorities and Federal Police knowing who we are and what we are doing - from articles in Brazil’s most popular colour magazine VEJA.
There is no doubt that the publicity has smoothed the sometimes rocky road encountered clearing in and out of ports. But there is still much to do.
Don, alias Captain Rabbit, was one of those lucky enough to spend a while with the Giant Otters - close-too.
But first we had to find them - probably more by good luck than knowing where they were.
This is his report:
Finding the Giant Otter
“Travelling up a tributary of the Rio Negro we came across a family of giant otters who soon fled into the trees on the arrival of Seamaster. We made a note of the spot and on our way back down the following day, we decided a quiet approach by dinghy would be best.
Geoff, Leon and I set off ahead of Seamaster and when we thought we were in the general area, turned off the outboard motor and drifted down-river.
The sight, of what must have been the same family of five giant otters (Pteronura brasiliensis) ‘fishing’ along the riverbank, was a real treat.
We drifted along in the current, with the otters slowly swimming along the riverbank and occasionally taking an exploratory stroll ashore.
These South American animals are the world’s longest otters, can grow up to 2 meters, and are characterized by mottled white markings on their throats.
The gregarious dark brown giant otter stalks the riverbanks during the day in search of fish, small mammals and birds, and spends more time in the water than other species of otter.
Their large paddle-like feet make them awkward walkers.
The group we encountered was a ‘family’ of five and they commonly live in groups of up to 8 or 9.
The following description is from Michael Bright’s ‘Andes to the Amazon’
“Although mating can take place at any time, new litters tend to arrive when the water is low and food is concentrated. They play, sunbathe, groom and hunt, and whatever their activity, they make a huge amount of noise, chattering incessantly with irritating and whining calls.
Swimming may not come naturally - a mother may appear to be drowning her cub, but actually she is teaching the reluctant youngster how to swim. She grabs it by the scruff of the neck, dumps it firmly in the water and repeats this process until it swims by itself.
The otter’s home is a territory that is cleared of vegetation and marked with dung, urine and scents from special anal glands. They flatten particular areas to serve as feeding and sunbathing platforms.
Their whiskers are sensitive to fish movements and they hunt co-operatively, blowing a bubble-net to corral shoals of fish, which they catch with their powerful jaws, but hold in their forepaws to eat.
If the fishing is good, they can catch and consume a fish every hour.
While the fur trade has almost decimated their population, they have no natural enemies” (apart from man).
Finally we were spotted, and with a gruff bark from the leader, they all dived and were last seen making their way across to the far bank.
This was an amazing experience when you consider that giant otters are very rare, with a population of around 1000 in the Amazon. We saw this group of five at close range.
Let’s hope they continue to live here, undisturbed except for the odd lucky cameraman and friends.
Leon has the following view, one that may really start you thinking.
He says it extremely well.
It comes from deep inside.
“It took a while for me to “get used” to waking up in the Amazon.
But now I am.
There’s something “right” about this place, on so many levels.
Sure, it challenges you every day, especially for the likes of us, just visitors here, ordinary people experiencing it firsthand, here to discover for ourselves what the fuss is all about. Each of us have had to slowly adapt to the pace and ways of Amazonian and tropical life.
Now I’m used to rising early to savour the cool and breath-takingly beautiful dawns, relishing the clarity the temperature allows, accepting that later in the day I’ll feel vaguely “vegetative” as the afternoon swelter descends, the thermometer clawing back to it’s daily 38-degrees Celsius, trusting though, that with the early evening will come blessed reprieve from the fug, and with it will pour the smell of the jungle, the essence of the Amazon.
Like I said, every day is a challenge, but it’s also truly beautiful and uniquely Amazon, which is why we came.
One of the benefits of a journey such as ours, one that relies upon river and ocean travel, which necessarily requires time, is that we get time to read. Sometimes you’re in the mood for reading something of specific relevance to the expedition, at other times it’s anything but.
Recently, I sat here in the tropics engrossed in the icy exploits of a high-altitude mountaineer and ascendant of goliath’s such as Everest, his name Stephen Venables - probably in an effort to feel vicariously cool!
To succeed as a high-altitude climber one necessarily needs to become an expert campaigner - or leader of expeditions, and this was the subject of Venables’s article. To me, “expeditions” conjures up folklorish journeys of old, undertaken when there were oceans to cross and mountains to conquer.
Venables’ point is that these days anybody can join or launch an expedition with the swipe of a credit card. Every ocean, jungle, mountain and desert is virtually attainable and conquerable, even time is no barrier these days. Why take four months when one will do!
Which confuses somewhat the term “expedition” does it not? How do you define what qualifies, or otherwise, to be called an expedition?
For example, back in the 1920’s when Mallory and Irvine were lost on Everest’s upper slopes, as Venables points out, you could be forgiven for thinking the drive for that expedition was to fulfil a desperate nationalistic need to be the first to the summit. But, the real winner at the end of the day was science, mapping, botanics and geology; information with which to progress.
Not the stuff of story books though, is it!
Venables points out that dictionaries define an expedition as a “warlike enterprise” or “journey, voyage, for definite purpose”. He surmises that “whilst the military connotations have largely faded, the real essence of what best describes an expedition are the words “for definite purpose”.“
Well, we’re on an expedition. The Amazon has such a calming, relaxing effect, at times it feels like a vacation. But it’s not. I’ve taken time out of my life and career to lend weight where I can, and to make my own discoveries.
Every day I ask myself, what’s our definite purpose? And every day it stares straight back at me. It’s taken time for it to sink in, but being here is our definite purpose.
We came because we know the Amazon is threatened. We have the information, but we don’t seem to be progressing with it. It’s taken being here and having time to wander, soak up the sights, the sounds, the smells, the way of life, to slowly realise that the Amazon, in it’s current form, is a last frontier, still mostly “right,“ as it was intended.
And this is the big one. Just because we, man, can conquer nature, should we?
If you think yes, maybe you should come here too. Experience for yourself what it sounds like as the jungle cacophony descends with the cool evening air, uninterrupted by air traffic overhead; how overpoweringly beautiful nature really smells devoid of man’s influence; how intensely bright the stars are; how moving it is to see with your own eyes monkeys and otters and caimans living as they’re intended, as part of the universe, disinterested in our concepts of time and history, but influenced by them none-the-less.
It still is as it was intended, but within our lives that probably will change. But to what degree is up to us. Which infers a decision. If we want to, we can all play a part in that decision.
My discoveries have been personal. I have developed a profound fear for what the future holds for this place, and consequently for all of us. I’m not being dramatic. This is real, we get one shot, so let’s face it.
One of Peter’s goals for Blakexpeditions is to help all of us fall in love with the planet we live on, to start to regard, rather than disregard; start to care, not out of fear, but awe!
Sure the issues are big, but so are the consequences.“
His piece says it all.
I hope it affects you as much as it has me.
All the best from the Seamaster crew - now reduced to:
Peter, Don, Geoff, Rodger, Rob, Charlie, Robin, Leon, Mark (a recent arrival on assignment for New Zealand Geographic Magazine) and Paulo (now our permanent chef until refit time next year).