Waking up in the middle of the night, I realized that I had no choice but to venture into the jungle by myself. The bathrooms were far enough from the cabins that you couldn’t see one from the other and it was still several hours until we were scheduled to get up . But I am terrified of large open spaces in the dark. One of my scariest experiences was arriving at a Boy Scout camp in the middle of the night for my Wilderness First Responder training, not being able to find the cabins, and having to sleep in my car by myself. So the thought of walking in the jungle alone even a short distance struck fear in me in the way that nothing else during the trip had. But I soldiered up, put on my raincoat and boots, and bravely made the 2 minute walk. I kept telling myself two things – that large animals rarely wander into the campsite and if I screamed, Chris and Fiorella would be able to hear me quite well. Thankfully, I made it back safe and sound.
Surprisingly, the bathrooms there were pretty clean. I had startled a tree frog in one of them the day before, but they were blessedly free of insects and spiders, more so than most campground bathrooms in the U.S. The water was clearly from the river – the sink ran brown – but a little hand sanitizer killed anything funky in it.
To get to the Manu Tented Camps as early as possible, we set off on the boat at 6AM into thick fog that scattered the beams from our headlamps and smothered the river. It was much colder than the day before, but the fog and shallowness of the river limited our speed, and therefore, the wind.
We checked in at the ranger station, then were thoroughly on the Manu River. The Manu was far more shallow, than the Madre de Dios, raising the risk of the boat bottoming out. The current was less powerful carried, and so the river carried far more sediment, turning it a distinct brownish color. It also formed many flat, calm sandbars in contrast to the Madre de Dios’s rock-strewn jetties. While few people like to hang out on rocks, animals enjoy the beach just as much as humans and they were out in abundance.
The riverbanks drew waterbirds of all sizes and types. Long-legged capped herons picked their way along the bank. Swallows flitted and dove, flashes of black above the placid water. Black skimmers dragged their beaks along the river’s edge, trying to pick up fish. One of the skimmers had three chicks toddling along behind her. Fiorella told us that they will need to learn to fly before the sandbar becomes flooded in the wet season or they risk being drowned. We also spotted a number of birds of prey flying overhead and perching in trees, including the huge black and white hawk eagle and king vulture.
The birds of prey weren’t the only predators though. Their toothy jaws ready for any morsel that wandered past, the caimans lounged on the banks, sunning themselves. They resembled slightly scaly logs. The smaller white caimans were the size of small alligators, while the few black caimans we spotted reached more than 7 feet long. Despite their size, they were sometimes difficult to spot. They were often covered in beige mud to protect themselves from sand flies and camouflage themselves from prey.
Moving through the landscape, the river revealed itself to us as the major agent of change in the region. As we saw in Boca Manu, the river sweeps away feet of land at a time, with their accompanying trees, during the rainy season. In the dry season, the river drops drastically in height, exposing sandbars and piles of driftwood. The river is always changing, never consistent. I was grateful for our boat drivers’ intimate knowledge of the landscape – any confusion and it would have been easy to bottom out. The river also adds new features to its empire, creating oxbow lakes whenever one of its snaking curves wanders too far from the current. While these lakes occur in the U.S., the vast volume of water makes them far more common here. The jungle too has its victories, with land and water in constant tension. Over time, the process of eutrophication slowly takes back the oxbow lake, with algae, then small plants, then trees, and finally soil establishing their presence further and further into the lake.
Watching the wildlife and landscape helped the 5 hour trip seem much shorter than the day before. After arriving at the tented camps, we went on our first walk through the lowland rainforest. Between that trail and others we walked later on, I realized that many of my notions of the rainforest weren’t exactly true. As I had formed many of my impressions when I was 10 and “saving the rainforest” was trendy, this wasn’t exactly surprising.
1) It rains every day in the rainforest. This is certainly true in the wet season, where it alternates between Seattle-like drizzle and Florida-like downpours. However, it didn’t rain a single day we were there, which is pretty common in the dry season. Instead, we had wet fog that burned off by mid-morning.
2) The Amazon is full of giant bugs. According to Fiorella, there are actually very few giant bugs – those tend to be in Asia. Instead, the Amazon is home to giant groups of bugs that collaborate. Huge termite and ant nests are common. We even spotted spiderwebs spanning five or six feet wide shared by 50 or 60 tiny spiders.
3) The air is thick with bugs. Again, this can be true during the rainy season. But I actually thought the mosquitoes weren’t as bad as they are in D.C. In fact, the worst bugs were the tiny biting sand flies at the rivers’ edge.
4) The rainforest is always noisy. Those “sounds of the rainforest” CDs seem to imply cacophony. While it’s never silent, the noise level definitely changes throughout the day. In the middle of the hot afternoon, it’s actually pretty quiet because everything is hiding or resting in the shade. It seems to be the loudest in the morning, when the animals and birds are waking up and letting each other know where they are.
4) The rainforest is uniformly dark and dense. I suspect I got this impression from diagrams that crammed the different levels of the rainforest into one 2D picture. But the rainforest is never uniform. Instead, it’s constantly transforming. Despite the greenery, the jungle actually has very thin, nutrient-poor soil because the rain leaches the minerals into the river during the wet season. To use nutrients before others can get them and prevent drowning during the rainy season, many of the plants are opportunistic, growing quick and shallow. Some even have their roots grow from the trunk down into the soil, like the mangrove trees in the American South. While this protects them in some ways, they’re more prone to falling over than deeply rooted trees. While these form patches of sunlit forest floor, once a tree grows tall enough to join the canopy, not much can grow below it. Because of this constant turnover, the forest floor ranges from very shaded to very bright, with the brightest areas often the most dense.
This contrast of dense and sparse, shadowed and bright forms a tremendous number of niches that a huge number of species occupy. In some cases, the organisms work together, like we saw with the mixed bird flocks. With others, the evolutionary race is breakneck speed. Parasitic trees wrap around a host and choke it to death while they climb towards the sunshine. Sometimes a parasitic tree is so successful that it replaces its host as the largest tree in the area.
Some palms have developed huge spikes as protection that prevent the parasite from even starting its ascent. Others have their bark peel off so the parasitic plants don’t have anything to attach to.
Once the forest itself refuted my initial elementary school assumptions, I realized I already had a basic ecological framework I could use to understand this environment. After all, it was just a forest. A complex, vibrant forest with far more species and variety than those at home, but a forest nonetheless. While it eliminated some of the mystery, it was helpful to have that structure that helped me fit all of the pieces together.
Walking through the forest, we saw our second troop of monkeys, a combination of White-fronted Capuchin and squirrel monkeys. White-fronted Capuchin monkeys are medium-size, with a semi-prehensile tail that they use to balance themselves. The squirrel monkeys are much smaller and lack a prehensile tail. Instead of picking and choosing which branches to take, they just fling themselves from tree to tree. The Capuchin and squirrel monkeys hang out together because each lends a unique set of skills to the team. The Capuchin monkeys are stronger and break open fruits that the squirrel monkeys can’t. Because the squirrel monkeys travel in groups of 30 to 40 at a time, they have power in numbers. They can see predators faster, provide distractions, and have more eyes to spot food. While the monkeys were difficult to see, hidden in the foliage, we did have one advantage – they would all take the same route. So if you saw one monkey cross a branch or palm leaf, you’d see several more if you just kept watching that spot.
After our forest walk, we headed out to a lake just across the river. We learned that a BBC crew had donated a “new” catamaran to the reserved a few months earlier, which was a good thing – the old one was half-full of water!
We set out on the rickety boat to seek Giant River Otters. While the species has “river” in its name, it’s to distinguish them from sea otters. They actually prefer calm lakes to rushing water. Because each otter eats seven pounds of fish a day and the otters are very territorial, each otter family claims one oxbow lake to themselves. As a result, available habitat is a major limiting factor on the population. In fact, the population of Giant River Otters in the reserve is only one-sixth of the number of jaguars. To better understand them, scientists have done several censuses to know exactly how many otter individuals and families live in the area. Each one has a unique pattern on the underside of its neck, like a whale tail, making it slightly easier to identify individuals. This research has led the reserve to close off part of the lake for the protection of the otters, so they have somewhere to retreat from humans.
Paddling down the lake, we eventually saw some splashes and little heads poking out of the water. The entire family of six – two parents, two adult children, and two juveniles – were there. They started fishing, their powerful bodies snaking under the surface and popping back up. Their long whiskers help them detect ripples in the water that reveal the fishes’ location. They hunt collaboratively, circling around the fish to trap them. Almost every time they dove down, at least one of them came up chomping on something. In contrast to sea otters, river otters are bigger, both in length and weight. They’re also far less “cute,” with rougher, less delicate features. Their large, sharp teeth easily ripped into thrashing fish.
Once they ate to their heart’s content, several of the otters started playing, wrestling with each other. While they weren’t hurting each other, their thick muscles certainly didn’t make you want to be on the wrong end of an angry otter!
As we watched the otters, the sun sank lower and lower. We didn’t realize how late we were going to be out, so we hadn’t packed out headlamps. We ended up hauling ass through the forest, our rubber boots clomping the whole way. We squinted a bit, but made it back intact and with the sun just fully dipping below the horizon.