I am sure that many of you have read articles in magazines about the fantastic collecting trips undertaken by such notable aquarists as Dr. Paul Loiselle. Some of you may have dreamed of participating in such an adventure - but they are only for the top-notch, advanced hobbyists, right? Wrong! Thanks to Margarita Tours, operating out of Fort Lauderdale, adventurous fish collecting expeditions are now regularly available to ordinary tropical fish hobbyists. Now we can all get our feet wet in Peru and collect our own wild fish. Between 21st and 28th January, 1995, I participated in such an expedition and in this article I hope to show you what a thrill it was.
As soon as I read the Margarita Tours ads in Aquarium Fish Magazine I knew that I wanted to participate in such a trip. I wrote to the stated address and very soon I was provided with literature by Margaret Slugocki, who is the wife of the expeditions' captain, Albert Slugocki. The descriptive itineraries had me counting the days to the time of the trip. In the months leading up to the trip I ensured that I had the necessary inoculations and that I obtained the various items suggested by Margaret.
The expedition begins on a Saturday at the Miami International Airport, where the various participants in the adventure meet for the first time. Ours was quite an international group, with two of us from Bermuda, one from Canada, one from Scotland and the other five from the U.S. The experience level ranged from professional importer to short-term hobbyist. We had all been advised to take a 48 quart cooler with us to hold our fish on the return leg, so it wasn't difficult to spot the other group members. We must have looked like a group of alcoholics to the un-initiated because another traveler approached me with the observation "I see you are taking care of the beers" as he nodded towards my cooler. Before long we had all been introduced to the other members of our group, as we continued to wait for check-in for the once-a-week Faucett Peruvian flight to Iquitos.
The wide-bodied jet takes about 4 hours to reach Iquitos from Miami. During the flight, all passengers are invited to participate in a game of mile-high bingo. With two prizes of $100 cash up for grabs, it is worth having a go. As it turned out, members of our group won prizes on the outward and homeward flights. The bingo was followed by a meal and a movie before we landed in the dark at Iquitos.
As a group of dancers entertained us on the tarmac we encountered a slight delay as the Immigration officer had forgotten his briefcase containing the passport stamps. Meanwhile, in anticipation of a generous tip, a bunch of young guys were hustling about gathering suitcases for the incoming tourists. Once the passports were checked and stamped it was on to the Customs check and finally out of the airport and into a rain-storm that had descended whilst we were inside. Albert, who had been "in country" for a week getting things ready, was at the airport to greet us. Whilst the Margarita staff got our luggage into a truck, we boarded a mini-bus and were driven through the wet streets to the offices of Margarita Tours.
We entered the street-side entrance of the Margarita Tours offices, passed through and came out on the other side - the Amazon side. A couple of flights of steps took us down to the Amazon Explorer, a double-decker Amazon riverboat that was to be our home for the next week. With cabin allocation out of the way, we were given a short guided tour of the boat and we gathered in the dining room for a briefing. The lower deck consists of 8 cabins and a communal area which we would use as our "fish room". The upper deck consists of the bridge, a dining room/bar area and a sun-deck/patio area at the rear. The air-conditioned cabins each have a pair of bunk-beds. That's a real air-conditioning unit, not a draughty window. The crew quarters are in the engine room, in the bowels of the boat below the lower deck.
The on-board expert for the trip was the effervescent Dr. Dave Schlesser, a.k.a. "Dr. Fish", from the Dallas Aquarium. Dave has led many of these trips and his knowledge of the Peruvian Amazon is amazing. Dave has an almost child-like enthusiasm and a fascination for all things living. So infectious is his enthusiasm that before long many of us fish-nuts found ourselves spending some of the evening time hunting down insects on the boat so that Dave could catch them. We were experiencing an appreciation for the beauty of all of the creatures of the Amazon.
That first night, as we slept, our river boat motored down the Amazon River and by the morning we had made the turn up the Napo River. Most of the first day was spent heading up the Napo and by afternoon we had reached the town of Mazan. This riverside town is the major trading and market centre for the area. At the time of our visit there was a large beach party taking place on the opposite bank, complete with loud-hailer and children's foot-races. We spent some time looking around the town and visiting the stores and market. This was our first of many encounters with the children of the area, who were very keen to receive the candies we had taken with us. We left Mazan and continued upstream.
About one hour before dark we got our first taste of tropical fish collecting, when we stopped and collected in a small creek near to the village of Salvador. Using a seine net we were able to catch about 20 species of fish, including Brochis splendens, woodcats, small doradid catfish, hatchetfish, freshwater flounder and piranha. Piranhas were found in most of the collecting locations but contrary to the impression created by movies, they are not a danger to humans. We were far more aware of the potential danger from electric eels and freshwater stingrays. The creek was a "white-water" habitat, the water being silt-laden, running from the Andes. The pH was 6.0 with 35 ppm hardness.
Once night fell, Dave set up his "black light" and the insect-watch began. Meanwhile, hook and line fishing from the back of the stationary boat resulted in a number of Cetopsid catfish being caught. These peculiar catfish were previously nick-named "Procto-Cats" by Dr. Loiselle due to their peculiar habit of swimming up the anal passage of larger fish and eating them from the inside out. I can assure you that all thoughts of "skinny-dipping" were quickly dismissed!
Monday's first light was about 5.00 am, and the Explorer continued it's journey upstream. After breakfast we left the Explorer in an aluminum skiff fitted with an outboard and we moved ahead of the larger boat to seek out collecting sites. During the morning we collected at two sites - a small pond at Oro Blanco and the larger Lake Avaho. The second site was by far the more productive and provided us with our exercise for the day. The banks and bed of the lake were very muddy and we soon found ourselves sunk past our knees in the mud. Walking in these conditions is difficult, so dragging a seine net through the water demanded a different approach. We discovered that we sank less when we were on our knees, and that it how we seined the lake. Amongst others, the seine produced juvenile shovelnose catfish, striped Raphael cats, knife-fish, silver dollars and the ever-present Wolf-fish and Piranha. Meanwhile, one of the crew members threw a cast-net over a sunken log and with his hand he was able to locate a number of plecos and Ancistris cats. As each catfish was located, the crew member hurled them through the air to the muddy bank, where they were then collected and placed in a bucket. Those of us who handle our fish with the greatest of care were quite surprised at how well these fish survived after what must have been their first attempt at flight. A number of sites were checked after lunch but many of them proved to be mainly rainwater with little fish life. We moved further upstream and by night-fall we had reached the village of Bagazan, below Zapota Cocha.
During the evening the men from Bagazan invited us to visit their village to see a Jaguar that they had hunted down and killed, because it had been killing the village's pigs and other livestock. The jaguar had been killed by one of the villagers armed with a shot-gun and it's skin and head were proudly displayed. It was a sad thing to see but it was also easy to understand why the villagers had to protect their livestock and themselves - they say that Jaguars have been known to take small children.
On Tuesday we attempted to gain access to Zapota Cocha and Papaya Cocha as both of these areas had been productive collecting sites on previous trips. Unfortunately, the water level of the Napo was unusually low for the time of year and we were unable to get to these lakes in our skiff.
By early afternoon we stopped at a village on the south bank of the Napo, just before the Tacshacuraray River. The village is home to a tropical fish collecting station - the first stop for tropical fish after they have been collected by locals. The fish are held in wooden boxes lined with plastic sheeting, with no filtration whatsoever. Water changes are achieved by carrying water up from the river. At the time of our visit the station had a variety of Corydoras cats, Raphaels, Banjo cats, Leaf-fish and others.
We left the village behind as we continued up the Napo. When we turned onto the narrower Tacshacuraray River we noticed a subtle change in the scenery - the river bank was not as steep and the trees seemed to be taller. Our first collecting site off this river was at Paivaa Cocha which we had to reach by walking through the forest. This was a beautiful area and provided us with some different species. There was an abundant supply of January tetras, some small hatchets, festivum, severum and some very nice, large scalare angelfish. We also collected an interesting trumpet-nosed knife fish and some small Satanoperca jurapari. We were still in white water and the pH was 5.8 with 50 ppm hardness.
On Tuesday night we went on our only night hike of the trip, as we entered the forest in search of interesting creatures. Unfortunately, there were not as many creatures as was expected, but we did locate a frog, some stick-insects and small spiders.
Wednesday was our fourth day on the water and it brought us our first opportunity to collect in "black-water". This moment had been eagerly anticipated by some of us as we were hoping to find Apistogrammas - we were not to be disappointed. After breakfast we traveled by skiff and on foot to reach Lata Cocha, a black water lake. The shoreline was made up of leaf-litter, as was the bed of the small streams that fed the lake. We fished the small streams using fine-meshed dip-nets. The nets were pushed into the shoreline, under the leaf litter, and then lifted up. Next, all of the leaves were picked out of the net to reveal an assortment of fish. The area was awash with Apistos - all bitaeniata - and we were having great fun catching them. This was what the cichlid lovers amongst us had been waiting for. Each scoop of the net would result in about five Apistos, together with Pyrrulina sp. splashing tetras and some pencilfish. A single Neon tetra was caught in one of the streams - the only Neon to be caught in the whole trip. We were totally oblivious to the cast-netting that was taking place in the lake itself but we later discovered that the cast-net pulled in a couple of species of Corydoras, spotted headstanders and others. The water in this spot had the typical tea-like appearance of "black-water". The pH was 5.8 with 50 ppm hardness. Curiously, the nearby white-water Tacshacururay River had a pH of 5.5 and zero hardness.
After lunch we reached the furthest point of our expedition - Urcu Cocha. This lake produced some Pulcher tetras and a couple of festivum. A single Leaf-fish was caught using a dip net at the shoreline. We commenced the return leg of our journey and again collected Apistos in the Paivaa Cocha area, before continuing on to the village with the collecting station. Unfortunately, most of the fish had been transported downstream the previous day but I was still able to trade a spool of fishing line for five leaf fish. There was also an opportunity for us to trade T-shirts for fishing-spears and paddles prior to the Explorer continuing downstream on the Napo for the last hour of daylight.
The main objective on Thursday was to get as far down the Napo as possible. However, Albert graciously allowed a brief stop to collect again at the village of Salvador, as one of the group was hoping to get more hatchetfish. The area had been loaded with hatchets a few days before but now they were all gone, illustrating the ever changing nature of the Amazon region. After the brief stop we continued downstream and some of the group took the opportunity to begin bagging fish ready for the flight home. There was a brief stop at the town of Mazan and then about 5.30 pm Albert pulled the boat into shore so that we could visit a riverside village. One of the villagers graciously invited this strange bunch of strangers into his home and showed us around. Most of the children of the village had followed us to the house and sat in the building, quietly watching us. Of course, they were given lots of candy and the householder received a few gifts before we left.
The food throughout the trip was excellent. It was varied, well prepared and in plentiful supply. We enjoyed Dorado catfish, chicken, pot-roast, heart-of-palm salad, and freshly squeezed tropical fruit juices, to name just some of the delicious offerings. However, on this, our final night aboard we were to be given a special treat. The pre-planned menu included T-bone steak, which was delicious, but the special treat had been obtained that morning from a young boy in a dug-out canoe near Salvador. Two large Oscars and a Prochilodus had been baked and were served as an optional addition to the menu. I believe that everyone sampled the Oscars and before long there were only bones left in the pan. They were absolutely delicious - the culinary highlight of the trip!
After dinner we enjoyed a very nice sunset, and a couple of beers before turning in for our final night on the Explorer.
The final fish-count for the trip showed that we had caught 55 species of characins, 14 cichlid species, 34 catfish species, 3 species of gymnotids and 4 species from other groups. This adds up to a grand total of 110 different species of fish.
During our week on the water, our group remained virtually unscathed and suffered no attacks by fish or wild animals. One of the group was bitten twice by a piranha - the same one - but this was only because he kept picking it up from its bucket on board the Explorer. Whilst a small amount of insect bites were inevitable, the area was surprisingly free of mosquitoes and other nuisances.
We tied up for the night close to the Amazon and by early morning we were motoring up river on the Amazon, heading for Iquitos. Along the way we could see many of the local people gathered by the river bank, waiting for the various ferry boats to collect them and their produce and take them into Iquitos. We reached Iquitos be early afternoon and we were soon transferred to the Hotel Acostas II for the night.
After the siesta period we walked to a tropical fish exporting facility. This is where permits would be issued for the fish we had collected. We also had the opportunity to purchase additional fish from the exporter - provided they could all fit in our 48 quart coolers.
With all of the fish business taken care of, we had time for souvenir shopping and a guided tour of the city. The final event of the trip was the Captain's Dinner, hosted by Albert at one of the city's restaurants.
The following morning we departed the hotel early and headed to the airport for the flight back home. Margarita Tours ensure that all of the required documentation is in place so that returning to the States with tropical fish is not a problem. We were soon through Customs and on our various ways home.
I am not an ichthyologist - just a regular fish hobbyist, yet I have been able to travel to the Peruvian Amazon, get up to my neck in water (and my thighs in mud), collect tropical fish and bring them home. Despite being back in my home country I am continuing to enjoy my fish collecting expedition as a result of the 700 slides that I took, and the assortment of fish that made the return trip with me. Thanks to the efforts of Albert, Dave and Margarita Tours, this is an expedition that anyone can take part in. Maybe you will be on the next one!