World Wetlands Day | Victoria O’Sullivan

A Journey to the Land of Mirrors

When a tree falls in the forest and no-one is around, does it make a sound? I have decided that the answer to this question is the obvious; yes, of course. Forests are teeming with life, so the question is rendered pointless since someone is always around to hear the tree fall.

I came to this conclusion when I was sitting on the top deck of the Clavero, occasionally lazily lifting my gaze from my book to watch the Amazon river dolphins splashing about below. A loud crashing sound interrupted my otherwise tranquil morning as a tree plunged into the river on the opposite bank. Immediately a chorus of howls erupted from the howler monkeys joined by the angry tweeting of many a disgruntled bird. This outburst of rage made by the rainforest’s residents was what answered that age-old question for me.

It was thanks to an organisation called Operation Wallacea that I was able to tick off a major bucket-list item; visit the Amazon Rainforest. They advertise their trips at Roehampton every year and as a Zoology student, I thought this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Conveniently for me, my dream to go to the Amazon tied in nicely with my course. It meant that I could collect data for my dissertation whilst I was there. This was incredibly exciting because it meant that I wasn’t just a visitor to the Amazon, I was a researcher collecting real data for a real project and perhaps for the first time, I felt like a true Zoologist. Of course, this meant I had to choose a project that was relevant to the Amazon. That wasn’t too difficult though, who wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to look a 2-metre caiman in the eye? Or in the mouth, as the case may be.

The lead biologist and local guide secure the caiman whilst I search for leeches on the ventral side.

I decided to explore the microhabitat preference and ectoparasite load of caimans in the PacayaSamiria National Reserve, Peru. Perhaps to some, this might not sound like the most interesting thing to study but spending six weeks prising leeches off the backs of caimans were probably the best weeks of my life.

Since I was only doing caiman surveys at night, it meant I was free for most of the day. This meant, on days when I was not so cowardly as to hide from the heat of the day in the boat, I could spend my afternoons trekking through the rainforest on a primate survey, watching troops of squirrel monkeys or capuchins swing from tree to tree overhead. Or I could join the mist-netting survey for the morning; capturing exotic birds, tagging them and releasing them. Not many people can say they got to hold a hummingbird. I can’t either, but I was stood right next to someone who did, which was close enough. Probably.

A hummingbird in flight just as it was released after having been caught in the mist-net.

I can, however, boast that I got to hold many a caiman; black, spectacled, smooth-fronted, ranging from 38cm to 226cm in size. And I was lucky enough to retain all four limbs, even after having to search the mouth – armed with more sharp teeth than I cared to count – for parasites.

A spectacled caiman measuring 1.7m has been captured and secured, ready for the parasite search.

The wildlife wasn’t the only memorable aspect of my trip. The landscape, the trees, the sky; they’re all different from home. Imagine looking up at the sky and seeing a whole host of constellations you have never laid eyes upon before, thanks to pollution. Imagine looking up and seeing the Milky Way, almost as stark against the night sky as the moon is at home. And if you stare at the sky for more than a few seconds you’re bound to catch a glimpse of a shooting star.

One of the most amazing features of the Amazon is the river itself. Often, it is so still that it reflects a perfect image of its surroundings, hence; ‘The Land of Mirrors’. It was mesmerising, especially during the sunset because the whole world, including the river, seemed to be painted in soft orange and pink hues.

The sky has been reflected almost perfectly in the calm waters of the river.

One of the best parts of the trip was the people. When you’re stuck with the same people for six weeks, you get to know each other very quickly. What made it better was that we were all in the same boat – pun intended. No-one wore make-up, everyone’s clothes were dirty, we were all sporting sweat patches and spotty legs from the sand-flies and mosquitoes. It sounds disgusting and there is no doubt that it was, but no-one cared, in fact, it only added to the sense of camaraderie.

My friends and I stand for a picture, having enjoyed a day off at a beach that was newly revealed as the dry season got well underway.

If I had to sum up the trip, I would say it was a truly awe-inspiring experience and something I would 100% recommend to anyone who has a love for travel or wildlife. However, I could probably write a whole book on this trip and even then, I couldn’t paint a picture of what it was truly like.

So, if you want to know what it is really like to go to the Amazon, you’ve got to go and find out for yourself!

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