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David in the Amazon

'From the Armchair to the Amazon'
Dr David Sands reports on the making of a TV program for fishkeepers

Flooding, endless days of rain, high water levels, fishes harder to catch. Sounds like the UK but this is October-November in the middle of the Rio Negro in the Brazilian Amazon. We are in a freshwater ocean, travelling days on end to reach the Rio Branco. It's the dry season yet water levels are 10-20 foot higher than normal. While the UK is having the wettest Autumn since records began the Amazon appears to be experiencing a similar weather pattern. Maybe there is something in the global warming science is currently recording.

Negro River

'To the Ends of the Earth' - Fish People in the Amazon
I'm on location in South America with four fishkeepers and three anglers for the making of 'Fish People' go to the Amazon. It's a fairly big production from Survival Anglia television with a full film crew to produce a program in their Channel four series 'To the Ends of the Earth'. We've got four weeks to fulfil our fishkeeping aspirations or angling dreams or just enjoy the Amazon. Some of PFK readers may remember the 1989 TV program called 'Fish People. I'm the only 'survivor' from that film which documented various people and their obsession with fishes. My doctorate research at Liverpool University involved catfishes from the Upper Rio Negro tributaries and I had made my last trip to Brazil to catch and study those catfishes in nature. My first trip to Brazil in 1979 to catch Corydoras barbatus featured in PFK.

'The cast'
However, I'm not the only person on this current trip to have Brazilian experience. John Chalmers, of Hobbyfish, and Colin Anderson, a discus keeper, have been a couple of times in recent years. I brought John to Brazil for his first experience in the Amazon during my research period in 1992. On their most recent trip, John and Colin had travelled to look at a fish conservation 'Project Piaba' fronted by Dr Labbish Chao in Manaus. The idea was that John and Colin would contribute to research by collecting fishes with Dr Chao. However, despite what had been promised they were disappointed at the time to find that they were simply 'make-weight tourists' who were not encouraged to participate in real research.
Now 'things' were to be different. John had promoted the idea of a fishkeeping program to Survival Anglia right from the start and, thanks to him, we would have four weeks to explore the four million square miles of Amazon to find exciting fishes.
Joining us on the trip is Kathy Jinkings, once a familiar name to readers of aquatic magazines through her IT links, articles and authorship. Her book about Bristle Nosed catfishes led to me supplying photographs and research material.
Finally, a latecomer to the program (which had been in the planning for over a year) was Derek Lambert who is known for his enjoyment of livebearing fishes and articles on the same. For the latter two, this is their first time in the Amazon although Derek has made a number of collecting trips to Mexico. Finally, there are three serious anglers, Giles Jackson, Chris Thring and Henry Trotter. They've got rods inside containers that look like rocket launchers and a whole array of lures some of which look like creations from a play station game. We haven't met these fishermen before and there is a kind of 'them and us' at the start of our journey. The trip only gets going in Manaus, the port town in the central interior of Brazil. Will we clash with them over fishkeeping versus fish hooking? Will they clash with us because they are after big river, monster 'Peacock Bass' (Cichla ocellaris) and we want small catfishes, cichlids and tetras from rain forest creeks. They were the uppermost questions on a few minds.

Fish mortuary
We've met Miguel who has arranged the boats and the trip. However, we have not set off up the river. Our first day's filming is into the covered fish market, partly a Victorian styled iron structure and partly rows of counters littered with dead fish. It's 6 am, an hour after the break of dawn, and the sun is already hot. I am leading the anglers off the 'Iguana', our boat, onto the busy landing, down a broad plank and onto dry land, past boatloads of fishes. We are climbing the steps of the port wall, crossing a busy road and strolling into a fish mortuary. I am chatting freely about the huge 'headless' catfishes (they are all dressed for cooking), monster fruit eating fishes, piranha, giant characins and a few hundredweight of 'Peacock Bass' spread out before us. I'm thinking this is a mortuary for fishes and I can't remember if I said it to camera. The director's just told me that there's no narrative to the documentary. The camera will film what we do and see and we will talk to camera about our thoughts. There is at least five people behind the TV camera including a producer, a director, a cameraman, his assistant and a 'soundman'. We are all finding it difficult to perform on cue. The fish market is a predictable start for the filming. I am now going back to the boat, moored with countless others and asking the 'aquarists' to take a look at the fish market for the film. I am now leading them down the same route from the boat to the market. It's getting very warm. The director has just told me I'm not needed for filming so I am strolling my way back to the 'Iguana'. However, I'm on the wooden jetty and there is no boat - both of them have vanished. This is one of a number of 'signs' that communication is currently not high on anyone's list.


Birthday on the river
Today it's Giles's birthday. Both he and John are to enjoy an Amazon birthday during this trip. Lots of beer and a very late party are now binding us together. I've got my guitar and I'm playing 'All along the Watchtower' in a style crossed with Dylan and Hendrix (my opinion) but everyone says they love the live music and I feel O-K.
Finally, the next day we are on our way. The boats (the film crew have their own boat) are towing metal canoes and ploughing a slow line against the mighty Rio Negro water flow. This is after days of waiting while the 'Iguana' and the unfortunately named sister ship, 'Bumerange' (the film crew's boat) have been completely stocked up with fresh fruit (un-ripened bananas etc) beer and fish etc. We are travelling under a full-throated thunderstorm but its definitely time to be intrepid after one too many days in the port.
After a bit of a long haul we've now stopped at a splendid lodge on a river offshoot that is used as a base by Miguel's eco-tourists. It's a Saturday so I am wearing my Blackburn Rovers shirt. Derek and Kathy are net dipping and appear to be thoroughly enjoying themselves catching splashing tetras. Derek is desperate to catch something rare and is 'seeing' new species even if they are not there. You can't beat enthusiasm.
Suddenly the director and the producer are announcing to us all that it's now 'our trip'. We don't have to be tourists - they are saying - we can dictate what we want to do and where we are going. It feels like 'Big Brother'.
Now, we've got a meeting because there are several agendas on board. There is the anglers, aquarists, film crew and boat crew. Who will connect them all together so we know what going on? I volunteer to be a liaison person and I'm voted in but there's trouble in the camp. Derek doesn't want this and there is drama of sorts. I've just tackled Derek and he's told me he doesn't like meetings and his role as editor of a fishkeeping magazine may be compromised if he's seen with me. I think he should of thought about that before he begged the producer to be involved in the program.
In discussions with the producer (who did a research trip of the region a year ago) it now develops that we are committed to some aspects of the trip. Firstly we are going to Barcelos, a small Amazon town that has grown up with the ornamental fish trade. The town is situated on the river and we are going there to look at Dr Chao' s place (he's vanished somewhere in America - probably heard we were coming). We are also committed to looking at an fishing community on an island. However, the fisherman's village/island is now under water. Everyone shrugs shoulders. This is supposed to be the dry season!
It's now been more than a week of travelling and we aquarists haven't gone up a single collectable creek. The anglers are catching piranha and bits but not anything like a two-three foot Peacock Bass. The river is just too high.

Lake catfishes
Finally on the Rio Negro we have moored at a small tree populated Island. It is flanked with smooth rocks and the river flow looks awesome as it swirls around the exposed boulders. There are some wonderful knots of deadwood branches and roots on the island that some aquarists would probably pay a ransom for. Miguel, the owner of the boats and lodge, is gently informing me that he ships 'container loads' of this wood to Japan. If you've read the 'Nature Aquarium World' books with writing and photography by Takashi Amano you'll know why his aquascapes with branches look so wonderful. One of the boat crew has surfaced with a saw and Miguel is instructing him to cut off a particularly eye-catching piece of the tree. I am cooling off in the water after doing a piece to camera. Swimming out from the island into the current of the river is suddenly frightening. This is the first time I have ever attempted this and I am struggling to keep up with the flow. It's a bit like running on the spot. I make a note never to swim in the flow of a major river again.
We are now travelling into a lagoon area known as Lago Cureru and it looks like a really cool place to catch our types of fishes. On the lake bank, amongst the partially flooded trees, there is a tiny open place where the trees are not crowding each other and we can land the canoes. Now we are catching fishes in and around the substrate of leaf litter. We are paddling in the water and, in the excitement all the 'people politics' disappear. It is almost possible to forget that we are being filmed.
Colin has just shouted out. He's within inches of a foot long red tailed catfish that is hovering below the water surface right in front of him. John is now sweeping around, rather bravely, in chest deep water, trying reach Colin and help to net the catfish. I've just poked my oar in and they've lost it. In the near distance Kathy is busy doing a full survey of the fishes in the shallow water leaf-litter and she's seems to be finding lots of weird catfishes. There are hundreds of small tetras. I'm catching inch long juvenile banjo and tiny talking cats. One catfish is Amblydoras hancocki, not rare, but it is lovely to see these babies. The adults would have spawned June/July in the floods and now in October, the juvenile talking cats alongside other species are now venturing out from the leaf litter. All-in-all this is a great moment. Plenty of 'whoops of delight'. I am running from the water to the bankside to help identify whatever Derek, Colin, Kathy and John are catching. I want to photograph the fishes later on the boat. My small photography tank survived the journey from Lancashire to the Rio Negro inside my guitar case and it is now to be put to good use. We're all pleased with the catch. We've waited too long to be here right now.
It's proving to be too hot to fish between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm. So it's up at the crack of dawn, siesta between those times and then fishing into darkness (with some night fishing). I've got the best cabin on the boat. I was the last on the boat and had last choice (honestly). Everyone, except me, assumed my cabin belonged to the captain. There are mutterings. But the humidity is sky high and there's no air conditioning. If the generator's on (sounds like pneumatic drill at full throttle) then I've got a fan that wafts some air into the place. We are drinking wholesale quantities of bottled water, beer and cans of pop.

David in the Jungle

Reds in the River
We are now at the mouth of the Rio Branco. The water is brown as opposed to black. There is also a different kind of greenness on the river bank. Large grasses, fern trees and trees. The Rio Negro banks are endless lines of the same trees, trees and more trees. Colin (now something of an expert at seeing what others are missing) is pointing to a baby red tail catfish a foot or so down in the water among the submerged branches of a fallen tree. I am just drawing a thumbnail sketch of the habitat in my notebook. I will add it to my scribbles within 'The Emperor of the Amazon' A handbook of the Red Tailed Catfish. My net just scared it away. Within the hour, another shout erupts from Colin. The little blighter has returned to the same spot just to tease me. This moment is revealing in that it confirms that juvenile Phractocephalus are just as territorial in nature as they in aquaria.
Another boat move later and we are all looking skywards down river of the Rio Negro. A seaplane is now circling because it is about to land on the river to allow a Canadian guy called Oliver (commercial specimen fish collector for public aquaria) and a Manaus based fish exporter, Eduardo (our guide), to disembark and meet up with us. According to Derek, the arrival of these two seasoned travellers means all our troubles are at an end. I'm thinking they must know where the plug is to let some water out of this massive Amazon river.
Once out of the small aeroplane the cameraman and his assistant go up to film the boat and the local area. Some of us talk about escaping back to Manaus in the plane.
Within minutes of returning to the mouth of the Rio Branco a red tailed catfish is caught in the same spot. I am photographing Eduardo as he holds it in a fish box. Colin is now photographing me holding the catfish out of water. I hope his pictures come out. The young red tailed catfish has a wound on its caudal peduncle base and so we eventually return it to the water hopefully for it to live fight another day.
Some of us are getting eaten alive. Not by mosquitoes (although they are biting) but by sand flies or sweat flies - who knows which? Some of us have got the trots. There is a rumour that there is bacteria in the ice that surrounds the tins of beer and coke in the cooler boxes. Now everyone is vigorously wiping them. Suddenly four weeks on a boat in the Amazon sounds like a very long time.

Maquari and Curubau magic

We, that is to say 'the aquarists', are now closing in on our favourite fishes. We are fishing at a lakeside site in near darkness and Colin has captured an Aspidoras pauciradiatus, a tiny catfish that looks 'all the world' like a Corydoras. However, a twin hole in the skull means that scientists know that it's different. There's a number of species in this genus but this happens to be one of the first species encountered by aquarists and to be spawned and raised in aquaria (by Colin Sykes amongst many who said they would cannibalise their own eggs if not removed). I can remember examining preserved specimens at the Natural History Museum in London in the 1970's that were still catalogued as 'Corydoras pauciradiatus'. Although described from a specimen 'said to have been collected' by Axelrod in the Rio Araguaia - either it is a widespread species or the location is wrong! Anyway, these lovely 'speckled' catfish are living happily in the leaf litter at the edge of a beautiful flooded-forest lake. There are millions of tetras, lots of weird little catfishes and driftwood and talking cats and Hoplosternum thoracatum - a kind of a giant Corydoras. We know from the anglers that the lake is full of wolf fishes (Hoplias - which have been nick-named the 'skin head fish' because they are as tough as old boots with sharp teeth to match) and Black Piranha. From our own 'survey' of the lake area we know there are plenty of small to large cichlids including Apistogramma, Geophagus, the Flag cichlid, Mesonauta festivus, pike cichlids, Crenicichla, Hero severus, the Severum and Cichla ocellaris and Cichla temensis.
Time to write up my notebook. The secret of the Amazon is the leaf litter. There are layers upon layers of leaves and it is home to microcrustaceans, eggs and invertebrates. They are the start of the food chain, from such tiny creatures and 'food' through to the larger predatory characins, cichlids, catfishes, giant kingfishers and eventually the Black Caiman. Without the leaf litter there would be little cover for the small creatures.

Dancing in the dark
We are heading into the Maquari creek and it is an archetypal Amazon rain forest river in both its shape and form. The outboard motor has to be lifted over every submerged log and I'm out on the front of a canoe keeping watch for them. It's like landing an aircraft without bats. As we journey up stream Giant kingfishers take flight off from their branches and are landing on similar perches just ahead of us. Each hundred-metre stretch of the creek seems to be territory to each bird. After an hour of this, we're heading out of the creek and into a large lake area again. There are habitats for angelfishes, discus and lots of other fishes.

Now we are out night fishing. Our canoe is navigating the Maquari again. My torchlight is beaming out from the brow highlights a blizzard of insects. I am hanging one of the filmmaker's powerful submersible-torch down and it is lighting up the golden brown water. Black Caiman are waiting for their dinner at the water's edge. Here at night you see them by the reflection of their eyes in the torchlight. The wider apart the eyes are, the bigger the Caiman. A foot apart and it can probably eat the canoe! Eduardo is croaking at them and they are croaking back. Males do this.
We see some fishes in the water but mainly amongst the leaf litter. It's a bit disappointing. Our fabulous lights are now prematurely failing (recharging not working) and we are steering the canoe back along the Maquari to the 'Iguana' in complete darkness. Just now we've hit a tricky clutch of submerged logs and some of us (not me) are disembarking onto a tree-sized log stretched across the creek. We are lightening up the canoe. Colin is momentarily left behind in the darkness, balancing gingerly on the log. We have a baby Caiman and a Mata mata turtle to contend with tucked away at my feet in the bottom of the canoe. It's all getting a bit scary. Safely back at the Iguana we are scratching and clambering back onto its middle deck. We are thoroughly shattered.

Islands in the stream
Now, after more Amazon ocean sailing, we are moored at a Rio Negro island that we had visited earlier in our travels. The difference now is the water level has dropped dramatically and this fall in the water level has exposed more rocks. Oliver announces he is to go catfish and stingray hunting in the dark. I'm going to leave him to it as I decide to make notes from the safety of the Iguana. That is until I hear whoops of success coming from a necklace of flashlight-lit rocks. I race round the island's edge to reach the rock area. The camera is 'rolling' and out from the crevices is plucked a rather delightful looking 'starlight' Ancistrus. At first I've got 'Derek's disease' and my mind is racing for an exotic identification. I am now thinking the Ancistrus is a Leporacanthicus galaxias, the Vampire catfish, because the white spotting is so beautiful and distinctive. Another whoop from another part of the rocks is a signal that another catfish is being pulled from the crevices. A cursory glance and I think that it is Peckoltia vitatta that has been captured. This species is recorded from the Rio Negro but I have never collected it in this habitat - I have never been on a trip where it has been collected. In fact, I have never really surveyed any of these small islands because they are so changeable. I am currently making a mental note to film the rocks tomorrow in daylight to record 'habitat pictures' for these lovely catfishes. I am wondering how this part of the film will look on television because it is so exciting and the catfishes are very striking.
There are large chunks of driftwood amongst the rocks. There is also a clay-like mud and the exposed area reveals what appears to be 'catfish burrows'. I am now pondering about the drastic changes to this habitat and how this must affect the fishes. The boulders and rock caves are sometimes sheltered from the fast river flow and then, one day they are exposed to the atmosphere and another, they are twenty feet under water. Such a changing environment must demand extremely adaptable fishes.

Fishing in the Rio Branco

Angel aquarium
We are now putting a match to a hastily constructed bonfire on the island in the best traditions of castaways. The plan is for Colin and John to travel out into the lake area and catch discus. They dare to venture out with the non re-charging flashlights and, after a long trip into the flooded parts of the lake they have returned with some superb angelfishes. They look like Altum angels but that is simply because they are so large. John is going to build an aquarium (from glass obtained before we set out from Manaus) on the boat to house them. That way we can take pictures and the camera crew can film these superb specimens. They may not be discus but the wild angels, Pterophyllum scalare, are absolutely superb.
I'm too hot and it's only 7am in the morning. Despite warnings about black piranha I want to swim. Now, two of the boat crew are paddling canoes at either side of me like an aquatic escort. They don't want to see me end up as breakfast for these sharp-toothed killers. Eduardo and Oliver have caught some massive specimens so I know they are in the water but I need to cool down. It's comical. I'm circling in the water and they are paddling to keep the same pattern. I like being loved. The camera is rolling.
Now I'm refreshed and it's a new day (or is the next day after that?) and I'm in the lakes again with the anglers. I've volunteered to go out in their canoe and watch them fishing. The camera is rolling and I am deliberately winding them up by telling them they couldn't catch a cold. There is lots of 'lure caught in the trees' because they are pitching into the lake's edge where the big cichlids live. I am showing them how to do it and, of course, I'm failing miserably. Now I know why I am an aquarist and not an angler.
On the way back at the Island Henry casts into an inlet and pulls out the biggest and most beautiful 'Peacock Bass' yet. 'I knew I'd bring you luck' I am announcing.
The aquarists minus one (Derek is poorly) are going across to another island to night fish for catfish. We know the flashlights are not going to last so as the sun sets in a blaze we await our moment to fish. It is a piece of magic and madness. Nonetheless, as darkness envelopes us we are quickly wading in the water and there are lots of cichlids and lovely Peckoltia. I am swearing as one 'cracking little catfish' leaps out of a crevice and across my pond net to avoid capture. It's a lovely moment. The four of us then set off in complete darkness back to our boat and our own island.
This night I awake from a dream that the Beatles asked me to play on a gig with them.

Large at the Lodge
More cruising down the river on the Iguana. It's John's birthday and in between shooting off to the toilet I am playing 'Moonshadow' for his unique beach party on the Rio Negro. There's also REM's 'Man on the Moon' on my playlist - am I trying to tell them some thing? I've seen the same tree a trillion times - the Amazon is so vast you have to be here to understand. I'm very close to howling at the moon. There are some amongst us who might belong in an Amazon asylum.
We've returned to the lodge after a heavy night of boozing. The plan is to visit a nearby creek and film aquarists snorkelling and such like. The water is said to be crystal clear.
My backside is beginning to protest at the amount of time it is placed into a canoe. Nonetheless we head off to the 'Igarape aquaboa' .
We are canoeing into an inlet creek from the lake and it's very eerie. There are lots of tall tree stumps and it has the look of a location for a Hollywood horror-thriller Southern Swamp-style. Now it's changing. The water is clearer and the creek snakes a full circle with beaches of leaf litter shallows on the bends.
This is where the angel fishes are being released by John and Colin. The camera is rolling. Kathy is sat on the riverbank and I am photographing the stream habitat (tripod in the middle water) because this scene is the best ecology lesson yet. There are submerged logs 'papered' in leaves and shoals of tetras milling in and out of the underwater branches. Suddenly a massive fish leaps, like a salmon, straight out of the water - between me, my tripod and the canoe - and it sails over the canoe and into the down stream section. I am 'gobsmacked'. Kathy is my only witness. I imagine that the camera crew and aquarists must have 'spooked' the two-foot long Cichla somewhere upstream and in its desire to escape it has vaulted out of the water, past me, and away.
Now Eduardo is lifting hollow logs out of the water and they are brimming with catfishes. There are Ancistrus, Tatia (a dwarf driftwood), a superbly coloured Acanthodoras (a talking catfish which has just ejected venom at me on camera) and a South American bumble bee catfish Pseudopimelodus raninus. This is one of the best moments of the trip. This beautiful 'catfish creek' was under our noses weeks ago. I am hurriedly putting my prescription goggles on so that I can swim underwater to look at the fishes in their habitat. Not content with that I've just spotted the best log yet. I'm being filmed lifting it to the surface. 'This will do nicely for my new Amazon aquarium' I am proudly announcing. The producer has just given me the 'evil eye'. He is making it clear that he doesn't want me to take a seven-foot long hollow log back to England. It may cost a packet in excess baggage. Well, you only live once.

Wacky Waterfall
The final part of the trip is to journey by canoes over rapids to a waterfall stream. At our objective I am supposed to wax lyrically for the camera about the incredible Amazon. In my mind I am thinking that most of the original objectives of the trip have been compromised and abandoned. However, there have been moments of real pleasure.
At the wonderful modest sized waterfall, John is investigating aquatic plants. He appears happy for the first time. We have just waded upstream together to reach this place of scenic beauty and it is a rare feel-good moment. One of the anglers and a couple of aquarists are sitting in and around the waterfall. Instead of anticipated tranquillity and reflection the scene somehow reminds me of Alton Towers theme park.
Today, as I greet the New Year, the wonderful log from catfish creek is in two pieces on a picnic bench in my back garden. I can see it from my window as I work on my computer. Who was it said that I couldn't get it home? Now, how am I going to convince my family that I need an eight-foot long aquarium?

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