In Search of the Giant Victoria

Text and photos by Rich Sacher
Click images to enlarge

It was indeed an odd assortment of explorers who converged on the Miami airport the evening of Feb. 18th. There were twenty of us, from nine states, Japan, flying to Manaus, Brazil to spend a week on the Amazon River. The search for the giant water lily, Victoria amazonica, had brought together adventurers with diverse expertise in the fields of photography, bird watching, fish species, and of course, aquatic plants. We were to spend a full week together on board the Harpy Eagle, as our captain Mo plied the waters of the Rio Negro, the Amazon, and lots of small tributaries as we looked for colonies of Victoria.

We arrived in Manaus at 4:00 in the morning, and our captain greeted us at the airport, where we and our luggage were whisked away to an anchorage at the Tropical Hotel on the Rio Negro. We walked down a steep embankment to the river, watching our step in the dark. There was no moon, but the stars were brilliant overhead; Venus was never so big and bright, and for the first time in many years, I could gaze up and really see the milky way, a smokey cloud of stardust overhead. Our captain gave us an introduction to the crew, and a short orientation on what we could expect for the coming week. We had drinks and chatted excitedly in the dark, until fatigue overtook us and we all went to our cabins. The boat started its engines and we headed upriver until well past dawn. Mo anchored the boat near the bank of the river as his still groggy passengers awoke and stumbled to the upper deck. You cannot imagine our excitement as we looked toward shore, and saw a huge pond up on the river's bank, full of Victorias. Hundreds of them! We made such a fuss over our discovery that even the sleepyheads among us struggled to the top deck to see the bonanza of Victorias.

   In no time at all, we had boarded three small boats and made our way to the river bank, and climbed up to the pond. The grasses were as tall as we were, and it was not until we were well into the pond area that we realized we were being attacked by hundreds of biting ants! We jumped up and down to try to dislodge them, used our many different bug sprays . . . and finally made a quick retreat. We got some photos, but our attackers were too fierce to allow us to stay long enough to collect samples. Back on board the Harpy Eagle our breakfast awaited us . . . eggs, fresh breads and rolls, tropical fruits, and some of the best coffee I've ever had. What a festive mood at breakfast . . . our very first hour of daylight on the river and we had already seen Victorias! Our captain assured us that there were many more colonies upriver, and that not all of them were guarded by killer ants!
 Mr. Shiroyama, Mr. Yamasaki, and Rich Sacher...all proud of ourselves, having survived the attack of killer ants!

 As we continued our journey, we came to the confluence of the Amazon and the Rio Negro . . . the famous Marriage of Waters. The Amazon flows much faster than the black-water Rio Negro; they flow side by side, brown and black, for many miles before finally mixing into the Amazon's muddy brown current. It was beautiful site which lasted for over twenty minutes, allowing the photographers on board to capture their quota of prize shots. The sharp eyes of our photographers and bird watchers were a great asset, because they quickly saw wildlife that our less trained eyes would have missed. We enjoyed their enthusiasm and they were amused at our Victoria obsessions!

 Marriage of the Waters

After dinner that evening, Captain Mo told us that as soon as darkness fell, we would be guided via our small boats and searchlights, to explore the dark river banks for whatever wildlife might be awaiting us. Caimans. sloths, snakes and even spiders would become visible when the searchlights reflected from their eyes, he said. The more adventurous of us (I volunteered to stay behind) got into the small boats and took off into the inky blackness of the Amazon night to see what they would discover. They returned hours later, excited by the adventure of exploring the banks of the Amazon . . . but no one saw a giant Anaconda snake, which I had been hoping for. (Vicarious snake encounters are always the best kind, I thought.)

   We were awakened at 6 am the next morning and found coffee ready for us in the dining room. Then it was into the boats again to explore some of the smaller streams that feed into the Amazon river. Captain Mo led us ashore to visit some local inhabitants who were accustomed to early-hour visitors. They showed us some of the native plants, such as the rubber trees, Brazil nuts, and a strange shrub which could be used to blow bubbles from its broken, triangular stem. Mo was very good at this, and he knew exactly which stems were best, and how to break them for the best bubble-blowing effects! Then it was back to the Harpy Eagle for breakfast.

As our boat got underway, I noticed some young boys in a small native boat had hitched a ride with us by holding onto the side of our boat. The kitchen staff gave them some of the breakfast leftovers, and the boys held on until

 Captain Mo
they finished eating, and handed back the dishes to the crew. I was touched to see this kindness so gently shared with strangers who were traveling this river highway with us. I was also surprised to see children as young as 5 and 6 years of age, paddling alone on this great river. Independence must come early in life if you want to get around on the Amazon! It was also interesting to note the boats of all sizes and shapes which floated on this sometimes choppy river. Large and small, by motor, paddle or diesel engine, there were an amazing variety of vessels in use, the only means of transport along the banks of this jungle thicket.

 Windy conditions later in the day actually created white-capped waves on the river, and our Harpy Eagle travelers were relieved when our Captain turned into a tributary which was smooth and wind-free. Here, in a shallow lake, we found several populations of Victorias. At times the water was so shallow that some of us left the small boats, while others pushed and pulled the boats through the weeds. Jack Honeycutt could not contain his enthusiasm, and was always jumping overboard to collect seeds and tissue samples. He found one large seed pod that contained over 1,000 seeds! (Yes, we counted every one of them later that night!) We also used a GPS (Global Positioning


 Don Bryne paddles thru a shallow lake full of Victorias
System) to electronically record the location of every Victoria colony we found; along with temperature and pH readings, this information will be useful in future explorations for these colonies.

After dinner each night, we would gather on the cooler upper deck to record the day's findings. Nancy Styler prepared tissue samples for drying, and the rest of us either cleaned and counted seeds from various locations, or examined flowers for the kinds and number of beetles which were busy pollinating within.
Pat Nutt, formerly of Longwood Gardens, and the first person to cross Victoria cruziana and V. amazonica to make V. 'Longwood Hybrid', did a wonderful demonstration for us one night. Using a first night flower gathered from a Victoria colony that day, he showed us how to cut away sepals and petals, and then the stamens of the flower, to prepare it for cross pollination with the pollen from second night flowers. It is amazing how many flower parts have to be removed to accomplish the task, and it was a revelation to watch it being done by an expert who has been working with Victorias for over 40 years. Equally rewarding was the opportunity to share Pat's joy as he encountered wild Victorias in the Amazon, after working with them under cultivation for so many years.
   As our explorations continued in the following days, we were surprised to find a wide variety of conditions under which the Victoria thrived. We found healthy colonies in water as deep as seven feet, and as shallow as 18 inches. They grew in slow moving streams, drowned grasslands, lakes, and even temporary ponds located high up on the river bank. We found a vigorous colony growing in pitch black, acid water which was so devoid of oxygen that thousands of small fish had died, creating both food for the Victorias, and an awful stench for our noses. The pH here was 6.8, much lower than the 7.5 to 7.8 we found elsewhere. Obviously, the Victoria is quite adaptable. Not only has it mastered a variety of water depths and pH, but somehow it manages to thrive in places where the water level may vary by as much as 30 feet! Some of the ponds where it thrived seemed likely to be temporary ponds, created by high water overflowing the river banks; once the river subsides, the ponds slowly dry up, the rate being determined by the amount of rainfall available to replenish the system. Some colonies seem to persist for years, while others come and go with the whim of the river. I began to think "Victoria will grow anywhere it wants to!" This is an unsettling thought to those of us who sometimes struggle to get the seeds to germinate under more civilized conditions, and nurse the plants from baby stage though its finally indestructible "Bites the hand that feeds it" stage.

 Victorias in shallow slow stream

 Victoria in a stream

 Victoria hidden in tall grass

One of the largest colonies of plants was found at the town of Anori, on a tributary just off the Amazon. Here, high on the river's bank, is a series of elongated ponds over 1500 feet long, and 60-100 feet wide. Although this river bank is under 25 feet of water when the Amazon is at flood stage, our Captain Mo says there have been Victorias growing here every year for at least 20 years. He brings tourists to see them all the time. There were literally hundreds of huge plants growing in these ponds, and most of the 5 foot leaves were in perfect condition. One would have expected to see more insect or animal damage, but as in most colonies, they were remarkable for their prime condition.

 The town of Anori had been located right at the edge of these Victoria ponds, but increasing flooding had forced the town to relocate some years ago, to higher ground further up this tributary; here we saw how they build house boats, using enormous logs as floatation for the houses. In Louisiana swamps, boat houses are buoyed up on empty oil drums, lashed together under the joists of the house. The house can then rise and fall with waterlevel, and move from place to place as the season requires. But in the Amazon they use logs which can be 5 to 8 feet in diameter, lash them together in the river, and then build a conventional house on top. It is an ingenious idea, and we saw several houses being built,


 Elongated ponds of Victoria at Anori.
as well as hundreds of floating houses tied up along the river. One of the most incongruous of scenes was the floating houses which had satellite antennae! Often a group six to twenty houses would pay someone to operate a gasoline generator for part of the night . . . thus providing electricity in an area where there are no utilities available.
   With no roads along the sparsely inhabited Amazon, one had wondered how people got the gas to operate generators and motor boats. And, how did they get groceries? Floating stores and gas stations, that's how! Probably the most surreal vision ever to be encountered on the Amazon River at night is a brilliantly lighted, floating gas station, in the middle of the river! Its decks are piled high with tanks of propane and gasoline, just waiting for customers to boat up and buy them. Considering that boats on the Amazon operate at night with the most minimal lighting possible, the floating gas stations emerge out of the gloom of night like an apparition from some other brighter planet.

 Store floating in the Amazon River

I guess they have plenty of fuel for their electric generator. And they want to be sure that no one runs into them in the dark!

I had some misgivings when I first considered this trip . . . I had read too much about the heat, humidity, bugs and tropical diseases that were endemic to the Amazon. But it turned out that the weather was no worse than New Orleans in August; it was actually cool and comfortable at night on the upper deck of the boat, and our captain knew he could anchor the boat in black water tributaries, where there was little insect life; we could actually swim if we wanted. (I had read too much about the piranhas . . . ) We had two doctors in our group of travelers, and we all took the appropriate vaccinations before we traveled to Brazil, so no one had more than a passing discomfort. The cabins were air conditioned at night, which made for a pleasant retreat from the day's damp embrace. The excitement of the adventure, and the comradery of the group certainly made up for any minor discomforts of the journey.

I live just a few blocks from this country's mightiest river, the Mississippi. Our nursery is only two blocks from the river, which actually looms up over us, now contained behind it's artificial levee. The Mississippi is a powerful and unpredictable traveler through New Orleans, and we know we are at its mercy should misfortune and nature conspire to defeat our attempts to restrain its course.. But the Amazon River is in a class by itself. Unfettered arid wild, it can rise over fifty feet during flood stage, and cover thousands of square miles of forest. There were times on the Amazon when the river was so fast that its current piled up into rapids. In some places the river was miles wide . . . and when we thought we were seeing the banks of the river, we were actually seeing huge islands in the distance, with more river all around them. I had read that the Amazon carries twelve times the water of the Mississippi River, but having seen it for myself, there is really no way to comprehend how enormous it truly is.

With a biological diversity unequaled on the face of this planet, the Amazon river system inspires both awe and reverence for the power and beauty it displays. We were privileged to see only a tiny portion of the Amazon and its jungle; it was reassuring to see that its signature exotic plant, the Giant Victoria lily, still grows anywhere it wants to, throughout the Amazon's domain.

Articles & Images by Rich Sacher

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