Sunday, August 10, 2014

Amazonas: Singing its Superlatives

I have traveled a bit in my life, and have come to realize that there are, generally, three outcomes of experiencing a new place: 1) glad you went, got the t-shirt, may have been an interesting place, but there's no urge to visit again; 2) liked it, and don't necessarily need to go back unless someone else pays and then I'd be happy to; or 3) loved it, left a piece of my heart behind, would go back tomorrow, and you'd better be prepared if I decide to stay there for the rest of my life.

Yup. #3 here.
I never thought I'd feel #3 again after visiting Tanzania when I was 19 (a trip that gripped me like no other place I'd been before, or since) until my trip to the Amazon River. If I had to describe it prior to July of this year, my preconceived notion was "sweltering, buggy, humid...but with lots of cool birds and things to see that would make the miserable conditions worth it." After July of this year, I now say "a true tropical paradise, interspersed with brief, random moments of sheer terror." Which to me, is a more apt--and interesting--description.

Almost hitting a hive of killer bees while
out and about at night
This July, I went to the Amazon River to experience two weeks of its natural splendor. I have lots of pictures. I could write a dissertation chronicling every day and detail. But that would ultimately be pretty boring for you to read. I don't know of anyone who really wants to hear about every moment of someone else's adventure. So after some thought, I have decided to write this first introductory entry describing the general outline of our trip and a few Amazon superlatives to give readers an idea of the fascinating world in which I dipped my little toe. Over time, I'll write up a few stories of some specific experiences that stood out for me to remember--and, taken together, should give readers the "jizz" (birdwatching term describing the overall look and feel of a bird) of the trip.

I knew the Amazon River and its surrounding rainforest was big. And, well, biologically diverse. I guess it didn't hit me until I went there HOW big and HOW diverse.

For starters, let's look at the river itself. Most write-ups of rivers generally list them by length (The Ten Longest Rivers In The World!) or by volume of water carried (The Ten Largest Rivers In The World!). The Amazon is the second longest river, nudged out by a nose by the Nile River (4,180 miles for the Nile, 3,912 for the Amazon) [Never fear, America, the Mississippi-Missouri complex is third at 3,710 miles]. This is from one source; others claim different lengths for each of these rivers, but I'm not going to be picky here because the Amazon comes in at #2.

It's the volume of this magnificent river that makes it shine in the statistical books. The Amazon is #1 by a long shot. The Amazon holds about 1/5 (20%) of the world's river-based freshwater. It is larger, by volume, than the next 7 largest independent rivers combined (two more rivers in that top ten list are tributaries of the Amazon, the Madeira, #6 and the Rio Negro, #8, and those aren't included). The Nile doesn't even enter the picture in the top 30 of this list [the Mississippi-Missouri complex ranks 15th]. The Amazon carries, on average (so this is averaging the highest flows during the 6-month rainy/flood season with the lowest flows of the dry season) 209,000 cubic meters per second (or for us U.S. people, 7,380,765 cubic feet per second). At high flows, the volume has been estimated to be 11,000,000 cubic feet per second.

The Amazon River drains a 1.4-billion acre watershed; over half of this watershed is in Brazil in the region known as "Amazonas." The rest is shared with Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Guyana, Bolivia, Suriname, and French Guiana. Two general drainage areas split the main tributaries of the Amazon--the Andes Mountains drains into the southern/western part of the watershed, ultimately landing in the river the Brazilians call the Rio Solimoes (So-lee-MOE-ez; but others refer to as the Amazon proper), and the Guyanan Highlands across northern South America drain into the Rio Negro and other northern/eastern tributaries. The Amazon and its tributaries enter Brazil with only one-fifth of the flow it finally discharges into the Atlantic, yet already at that point has a greater flow than the discharge of any other river in the world.

The Solimoes drainage carries quite a bit of sediment from the Andes Mountains. The water tends to have more nutrients--and is cloudier--due to this sediment load. The Rio Negro, draining the volcanic substrate of the Guyanan Highlands, doesn't have that sediment load. It does pick up tannic acid from the tannin-heavy rainforest vegetation, and is therefore clear but dark (think of a glass of clear iced tea), and--fortunately for us and the humans that live along it--too acidic for mosquitoes to breed. Unless you get into the interior of the rainforest beyond the edges of the Rio Negro and its acidic tributaries, you don't see or experience mosquitoes while on this river. An added bonus is that the Rio Negro water is like a vinegar rinse--good for your skin and hair.

Just east of Manaus, where the Solimoes and Negro meet to form the Amazon proper, is a phenomenon and tourist attraction known as the "Meeting of the Waters." The light-colored, sediment-laden Solimoes meets the clear, dark Negro. Their currents are different speeds, their relative density differs, and because of that, the two rivers essentially travel side by side, not mixing, for up to four miles. This separation is most notable, and easiest to reach by boat, just outside of Manaus.

Rio Negro, at left; Rio Solimoes, at right; we're now
on the Amazon River
The Amazon then picks up more and more water on its journey east to the Atlantic, emptying out its freshwater into the sea. The plume of freshwater is so great (and lighter than sea water) it can reach over 250 miles in length, and between 60 and 120 miles in width. Sailors over 100 miles into the Atlantic ocean can still scoop up freshwater off the side of their boat. Its mouth at the Atlantic, during high seasonal flood flows, can be over 120 miles wide (some documents cite 250 miles width; others say "wider than the distance between Paris and London"). At Manaus, where the Negro and Solimoes meet, it's already about 10-15 miles wide. Can I just add here that Manaus (some thousand-plus miles from the Atlantic) is only 144 feet above sea level--and that some of the Amazon River is actually below sea level, but its force and size push it upwards and onwards.

That's alot of water. And a huge watershed. Let's turn to the Amazon rainforest. If it was a country, it would rank 9th in size. Ten percent (some reports say up to one-third, or over 30%) of the world's known species live in the Amazon rainforest (over half the world's species can be found in all of Earth's rainforests combined). 20% of the world's birds live here, as do 2.5 million insect species, 40,000 plant species, and 3,000 fish species. There are so many plants that for the most part, native cultures would only bother to name those plants that are either beneficial/used or poisonous. The rest they didn't name; what a headache that would be, eh?

Some people refer to rainforests, especially the largest ones, as "the world's lungs," attributing the carbon absorption and oxygen-producing qualities of plants offsetting carbon build-up in our atmosphere. However, this is a misnomer; the decomposition of plant matter here absorbs about as much oxygen as the trees produce. It's more accurate to state that our planet's rainforests have a cooling effect on global climate, as they absorb a huge amount of heat from the sun. About 30% of our carbon emissions actually come from one thing--burning of the rainforests for agricultural uses/exploitation and human growth.

The Amazon and most of its tributaries are characterized by forests that become seasonally flooded during the 6-month rainy season. The river can rise up to (at times exceeding) 30 feet, flooding about 100,000 square miles of land every year. At the river's height, one can travel to normally inaccessible areas by canoe, effectively floating through the rainforest at mid-canopy height. Trees can be seen beneath the water, fully leafed out; birds and other animals can be observed more easily as you glide through the middle of the forest canopy in your canoe.

A flooded tree
This is why our trip was scheduled when it was. The height of flood season is just when the rainy season stops (end of June) and the river has yet to barely start receding. This is when you can best explore the forest--by canoe.

Floating through the mid-canopy layer of the rainforest
Our tour began and ended at Manaus. Upon landing at the Manaus airport (direct from Miami), we were shuttled to our boat, the Dorinha, that would be our home for the next two weeks. We would float a few days up the Solimoes, turn and come back to Manaus for a day visit, and then spend the majority of our time on the Rio Negro.

Hello, nice to meet everyone, what are we in for???

Our home for two weeks, the Dorinha

For the most part, our day would start at daybreak with a wake-up song played over the boat's P.A. system--Pavoratti's La Traviata to be exact; we'd grab a cuppa joe and enjoy opera, the wake-up songs of birds, and a bite of yesterday's dessert cake.

We'd then head into our three canoes as the day broke for a morning float into the forest.

A few hours later, we'd head back to the Dorinha for breakfast/brunch, and spend the heat of the day traveling further upriver on the boat with that time to ourselves for whatever we wanted to do: nap, watch the trees float by and see birds along the way, or in my case, pull out my crochet while sitting on the canopied upper deck and watch the forest and water glide by.

We'd then land somewhere fascinating and go for an afternoon canoe ride until sunset.

Back at the Dorinha, we'd have dinner and review "the checklist" (a gathering of the group to review every species observed that day).

Many evenings after dinner, we'd head back on out for a night-time spotlighting excursion. Let me say here that there's nothing like floating in the dark of night in the jungle, more stars overhead than you've ever witnessed before, with only a spotlight lighting your way as we looked for reflections of eyes that could belong to snakes, frogs, caimans, birds, tarantulas, or sloths. Shiver.

So come join me and hear my stories of Amazonas, which I'll be posting over the next several weeks. I hope you enjoy!

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