Jean-Michel Cousteau tells us to expect a dramatic change in the colour of the ocean.
We are cruising through sparkling blue Atlantic waters off the coast of Brazil heading towards the mouth of the Amazon River, more than 400 kilometres away. Cousteau, the famed environmentalist and head of the Ocean Futures Society, has partnered with our ship, Regent’s Seven Seas Mariner, to educate passengers about the Amazon and its impact on the world environment. He reminds us that the Amazon holds more than a fifth of all the fresh water on earth and drains an area bigger than the continental United States.
Sure enough, the water around us soon begins to look murky and then takes on a brown, muddy hue. It’s like we’re sailing through a sea of liquid milk chocolate. There is no sight of land but we are very much under the influence of the mighty Amazon.
Several hours later we spot a low, green horizon with a wide gap – the Amazon! Its huge estuary is almost 300 kilometres across with a series of sediment-formed islands, one of which is larger than Switzerland.
It’s staggering to comprehend the scale of the Amazon River and its influence on planet Earth. From its source in the Andes it runs almost 6500 kilometres to the Atlantic Ocean. Its 2000 tributaries add to a massive flow of water that would fill lake Ontario in just three hours.
Jean-Michel Cousteau comments that the murky, cocoa colour of Amazon water is deceptive. “In fact, the Amazon is one of the cleanest rivers on the planet,” he says. On its long journey, the river picks up huge amounts of silt and nutrients which it dumps into the Atlantic. These nutrients become part of the Gulf Stream and have a positive effect on marine life in the United States, Canada and beyond.
“There would be no coral reefs in the Caribbean if there was no Amazon,” Cousteau states. “In fact, the river’s influence can be traced all the way to England. It’s mind-boggling!”
About 40 cruise ships a year head up the Amazon for the four day, 1600 kilometre trip to the city of Manaus. To get there we take our time, steaming slowly against the 3-5 knot current, and enjoying all the amenities of a luxury cruise line. The chefs make a point of offering fresh, local fish whenever they can and the complementary fine wines are often outstanding South American vintages.
There are no channel markings on the Amazon because the riverbed is constantly being altered by the surging water. The Captain of the Seven Seas Mariner tells us that he relies totally on the local pilots to guide his route around the shifting sandbars.
At one point we drop anchor in the Rio Tapajos (a minor tributary that still carries more water than the Mississippi) so we can take a small boat into another tributary to fish for piranha and view some of the homes, many of them on stilts for protection against the annual floods.
The area seems alive with birds and animals. On one tree we see a large iguana resting on a branch while a three-toed sloth hangs lazily from another limb. With more than two million known species of insects and countless birds and animals, most of which are well hidden, Cousteau notes that “there are more eyes than leaves along the Amazon.”
Except for occasional villages and isolated homesteads, the low green foliage of tropical trees and vines seems endless. Jean-Michel Cousteau reminds us of the huge problems facing Amazon countries. Already one-fifth of the rainforest has been destroyed by a ‘slash and burn’ policy of farmers and foresters. Roads through the wilderness are causing major environmental problems.
The Amazon rainforest is absolutely essential to the health of the planet, Cousteau tells us, because of its major role in recycling carbon dioxide. “Every tree we cut should be replaced by a tree,” he says, “and that’s not being done. The world should be concerned.”
As we complete our journey at Manaus we are struck by the sheer size of this improbable city. Its 1,600,000 inhabitants are surrounded by little but rainforest. Founded by the Portuguese in 1669 as a fortress, Manaus began its huge growth spurt shortly after 1839 when Charles Goodyear developed vulcanization and demand for rubber exploded. Rubber trees (with their latex) grew only in the middle of Brazil and the “rubber barons” of Manaus (thanks, in large part, to slave labour) became very rich.
A remarkable reminder of those glory days is the magnificent Opera House, built in the grand style of the finest theatres in Europe and now restored. The Opera House was completed in 1896 and welcomed Caruso as one of its first performers.
Manaus might have continued as one of the world’s wealthiest cities had not a British adventurer smuggled 70,000 rubber tree seeds back to England. Those stolen seeds were sown in Malaysia, causing Brazil to lose its latex monopoly. That deed and the invention of synthetic rubber by the 1920s meant the end of wealth and decadence in Manaus as the city sank into decay and obscurity. As a free-trade zone, it’s now in a growth spurt.
Jean-Michel Cousteau worries about Manaus as well as the indigenous people (“they are largely hidden upstream on the Amazon and tend to be forgotten”) and the fragile nature of the Amazon ecosystem. But, he says, it’s important for tourists to visit this area and realize how vital the Amazon is to a healthy world.
“People protect what they love”, he says. “Come and see this river for yourself. You’ll be blown away.”
All Photos © John and Sandra Nowlan
“Amazon riverboat & Regent Ship”
“Amazon farmer and Family”“Amazon — Friendly Young Brazilians”
“Manaus Opera House”
“Tending Cattle along the Amazon”
“Local Amazon Transportation”
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