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
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.)
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
Elongated ponds of Victoria at Anori.
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.