“…while my selfish desires to see wonderful wildlife have me feeling a little disappointed with that aspect of our trip – what occupies my thoughts now, as I prepare to leave, is a growing realisation that this place may be in trouble.”
– Sir Peter Blake
Today the Log belongs to Dr Mark Orams.
You will understand why when you read and understand what he has to say.
Some reflections on a month exploring the Rio Negro
Tomorrow I leave Seamaster and begin to make my way back to New Zealand, to my family and to marking my students’ exams at Massey University. It is impossible for me to summarise all the experiences of the last month in this piece. I have, therefore, put together some brief thoughts and highlights, which I hope that you will find interesting.
Inevitably one’s perceptions are shaped by one’s expectations. I certainly expected a lot when coming here. The Amazon has a mythical status amongst biologists. I understood, therefore, the scale and importance of this ecosystem. The diversity and abundance of life here is unequalled in terrestrial environments. As a consequence I expected and hoped to see some wonderful wildlife – in truth I have seen very little. What I did not understand or appreciate was the important influence people have had on this ecosystem and it is this, rather than the wildlife, that has made the greatest impression on me.
The people who live here in the Amazon basin live a simple life – predominantly they are hunter/gatherers – supplemented with some trade and cultivation. However, there is no doubt that the river is the most important influence over their lives. It is their base for transport, it provides food, a place for washing, for disposing of rubbish and for ablutions. This may provide some explanation as to why we have seen so little wildlife on our expedition thus far. The Amazon and its tributaries provides a home for over 10 million people (nobody really knows how many – it could be as high as 20 million) – most of these people live like those we met in small villages like Santa Helena and Daraqua. The natural environment here is an important source of food and whether an animal is endangered or not is of little consequence when putting food on the table is a priority.
On our trip we have seen numerous turtle carapaces, beside fires where they have been cooked, jaguar and caiman skulls, and dead snakes – they were all killed by people.
Fish – while still plentiful in some locations in the Amazon – are getting harder and harder to catch and the large size fish (like the remarkable 3-4 metre Pirarucu) are now extremely scarce. The Peixi Boi (manatee) continues to be hunted for food despite it being severely endangered and illegal to kill one. The local people also (perhaps understandably) seem to kill anything that could be a threat to their safety. We found a coral snake (or a false coral – I couldn’t tell) macheteed and were told of a large anaconda that the locals had killed near a waterfall we visited. It is sobering to experience this – what it shows me is that conservation is primarily the cause of the rich. When you are worried about providing for your family and keeping them safe, whether an animal is endangered or not is of little consequence. This is a tragedy. It is a tragedy because the future of the people of Amazonia (and elsewhere) is inextricably linked to the quality of the natural environment here and yet, it seems to me, that the people here are contributing to its degradation.
I feel caught somehow over this issue. Here I am the part time visitor, from a rich western country, here for a matter of weeks passing judgement on the way of life of a people who are friendly, welcoming and happy living a simple life. Yet I cannot ignore the plastic bags and other non-biodegradable rubbish I have seen all around everyplace people live. I cannot ignore the tragedy of a jaguar skull and the majestic animal it once was. I cannot ignore where I see the future going for the people of Santa Helena, Daraqua and others who depend on the river. There is no doubt that we, in the so called developed world, are contributing to this situation – many of the plastic containers and bags and rubbish we have seen were probably made in developed countries. Anyway – it is not productive to search for blame. Answers are what’s needed. The Amazon is vast, beautiful and important. Important to the world – but of even more direct importance to the people who live here. They are directly dependent on it and affected by it.
So, while my selfish desires to see wonderful wildlife have me feeling a little disappointed with that aspect of our trip – what occupies my thoughts now, as I prepare to leave, is a growing realisation that this place may be in trouble. Admittedly, we have not ventured far off the main “highway” (the Amazon and Rio Negro) – however Seamaster has now travelled over 1,200 miles inland and we have had fleeting glimpses of some of the unique and diverse wildlife of this region. Wildlife, after all, that inevitably is a reflection of the health and quality of this ecosystem. So, is the Amazon in trouble? In truth – I don’t really know. It certainly is not as it once was and that suggests a downward trend – that is not good news for any of us given the importance of this place. So – what are the answers – are there any?
I was able to glimpse a potential answer while visiting the small village of Santa Helena two weeks ago. We were welcomed into the village’s small school – a small, open air building with a roof but no walls, some worn old desks and around 15 bright eyed smiling young children. We were introduced by the teacher and through our guide and friend Miguel we were able to tell them a little about where we were from. “In Nove Zealandia” (New Zealand), Miguel translated, “there are no caiman, no jaguars, no snakes or monkeys, no otters, manatees nor river dolphins”. He explained that we were here because we thought the Amazon so special and the animals that lived here so important. He passed on that these animals are important and valuable alive and how special their home is and how carefully it must be looked after. As I looked at these beautiful, delightful, children I hoped that this seed planted in these growing minds might develop and grow into a sense of pride and caring for their surrounding environment, strong enough to transcend the simple need to survive.
For my part, I continue to think and explore – firstly, about my own decisions and how they impact the world we all share and secondly, how I can help – what I can do to make a positive difference. I leave those thoughts with you. I am far from having the answers – but I, and all of us, need to continue to explore and think about how we might contribute to a better future. That is why Blakexpeditions is important – that is why I am proud and privileged to be a part of it and why, I hope, you will join us on our journey, on our quest.
Mark Orams, PhD.
Massey University, New Zealand.
With blakexpeditions onboard Seamaster.
17 November 2001
It has been great being together again.
I remember well those days and nights together on watch on Steinlager 2 as we forged our way to victory in the 1990 Whitbread Around the World Yacht Race – since then you have gone your own way and become an acknowledged expert in your chosen field of whales and dolphins.
Then onto the very stressful times of the America’s Cup, when we were again successful, and in which you once again played a key part.
My racing days are now complete – I don’t have that fire any more.
But a new fire is even stronger and I guess we have both closed in again to the point where you and I now want the same thing – to make a difference in how people perceive and understand the wonders and needs of the environment that surrounds us.
This is the biggest race there is. None is bigger. It is the most important race of all.
This is, or should be, the major concern of everyone on this planet because it is about to be an issue that will impact your children and mine in a way we could never have imagined even a few short and fun-filled years ago.
Thanks for your considerable help and advice.
Thanks for your expertise in all matters aquatic.
You are welcome aboard any time.
All the best from the Seamaster crew.
Photo credit: Don Robertson