Rio Negro 2

Rio Negro 2


Up the Rio Negro 2
By Uncle Bill

My wife and I have always had a fascination with wild fish, especially discus. We were also interested in actually seeing first hand the environment in which they live. So it was decided that before we were too old to make the trip, we would fulfill our lifelong dream and go to the rainforest. But where to start?

As I was interested in collecting specific fish, a packaged tour was ruled out. We also wanted to go "into the jungle", just like real explorers, and live with the people of the forest. Well, sometimes you have to be a little bit careful of what you wish for.

For any of you who are contemplating a similar adventure, a word of caution: do not go to Manaus or Barcellos and hire a local boat and captain without first getting reliable local (USA) recommendations. This is not just a good idea. This is an absolute must.

Although I have been keeping tropical fish for 45 years, when it comes to collecting them I am a complete novice. I didn't know a single person who had actually done it. So, I called Adolph Schwartz.

The old Fish Market in Manaus. It's still in use and a lot better looking than the new strip-mall style market.

Lo and behold, Adolph's brother-in-law, Asher Benzaken, owned the tropical fish exporting firm "Turkys Aquarium" in Manaus. Adolph told me to give him a call about a week before we were to leave San Francisco and he would ask Asher to help us out. Help us out he did. If it were not for Asher, this trip would surely have been an absolute disaster.

We arrived in Manaus on Friday the 24th of November. After a 23 hour flight from San Francisco, we were dog tired. Fortunately, we had booked our flight and hotel through San Francisco Travel. Francoise Fleischhacker, the owner and a personal friend, is herself an experienced world traveler. On all of the legs of our trip she had booked us seats with extra leg room.

After checking into the Lord Hotel, we immediately called Asher Benzaken to tell him of our arrival. He didn't know who we were!

It seems that he was in the process of moving his office and hadn't gotten many of his Fax messages for the past week. This was just great. Here we were in the middle of Manaus, didn't know a soul and couldn't speak a word of the language.

Not to worry. Asher graciously suggested that we be at his office Sunday morning at 9:00 A.M. He'd see what he could do and would give us the "Cook's tour" of his fish farm. This gave us a day to ourselves for sightseeing and a walking tour of Manaus.

Sunday morning came and we took a taxi to Asher's office. He had arranged for us to meet one of his fishermen in Barcellos who would take us on his boat for a week's collecting in the rainforest. Asher wasn't sure how many of the fisherman's family members would accompany us but, regardless, we would be well taken care of. We would fish mainly for apistogrammas, Altum angels and blue-headed Heckle discus or Cabeza Azul.
Not only had he organized our collecting trip, he had made arrangements for us to be picked up at our hotel, driven to the dock, made reservations on the next ferry to Barcellos and had contacted a friend of his in Barcellos to meet us upon our arrival.

When we had recovered from this news, we jumped into Asher's car and were driven to the fish farm. And what a farm it is.

A few miles north of Manaus we turned off the highway. Heading down a winding dirt road we rounded a bend and there it was; five acres of fish.

There were concrete pools, row upon row of tanks, separate buildings housing catfish, discus and just about any type of South American fish that could be imagined. Asher isn't just an exporter of fish, he genuinely cares about his animals.
A view of some holding ponds for Cardinal tetras, Paracheirodon axelrodi. Two million of these beautiful little fish are on hand at any given time awaiting export. These are considered "the money fish" of the Rio Negro.

Twice a year for the past seven years he has had two scientists, one a bacteriologist and the other a pharmacist, come from Israel to Turkys Aquarium. They spend up to 40 days at a time doing autopsies and formulating cures for specific diseases of specific species of fishes.

The volume of water necessary for this size of operation is continuously supplied from a stream (igarape) running through the property (pH 4.5). Depending on the geographical origin of some fish, a higher pH is required and this is obtained from a 200' deep well. The water is first run through a sand prefilter and then through floss with a 100% turnover rate of 23 times/day.

Turkys has also developed its own food formula which is manufactured in Denmark. The primary ingredients are shrimp (not farm raised), beef heart, spinach, lettuce and vitamins. Different ratios of meat to vegetables are used depending on the species of fish. Cardinal tetras are fed 8 times each day with an additional feeding of boiled egg yolk. All otherfish are fed twice a day; plecos twice at night. All fish are kept a minimum of two weeks (cardinals for 4 weeks) and all are fasted for 4 days prior to shipping. No fish are sold that are not eating.

Just to give an idea of the size of this operation, Turkys employs 39 full time workers at the farm as well as 70 contract fishermen throughout Brazil. It keeps an available inventory of 2 million cardinal tetras, 500,000 corys, 20,000 discus (ships 5,000/wk.) and 150,000 rummynose tetras. This is a big job and much of the success can be credited to Asher's right-hand man and manager, Shimon Ben-Shabat. The genuine interest and level of care being given these fish was wonderful to see. After inspecting the facility, we returned to Asher's office to discuss our itinerary for the next two weeks. The ferryboat was to leave Manaus and arrive in Barcellos sometime Eriday morning. You will note that I said "sometime" Friday morning. In this part of the world one must reset their clocks for "Amazon time".

Catching Apistogrammas

Wednesday came and Wednesday went. The ferry's motor had broken down and a mechanic was scheduled to arrive later that afternoon, "sometime". Thursday came and still no mechanic. We were beginning to get a little antsy by this time when just then, Lady Luck smiled on us in the person of Frida Katz. Had it not been for Frida, we might still be waiting for the ferry to Barcellos.

Frida was born in Germany, raised in Sao Paulo and has lived in Barcellos on the banks of the Rio Negro for many years. She was also fluent in English!

I have no idea how she knew that we were Americans (maybe it was my double knit suit, white loafers, white patent leather belt and cowboy hat). Whatever it was, we heard the most wonderful voice coming from behind: "May I help you?"

"You bet you can!" said I, in my best Portuguese accent.

Frida then explained that the mechanic had yet to arrive, that one never knows when or if he will arrive, that she was taking another boat and, if there were accommodations, would we like to join her.

A view of the dock at Barcellos, about 300 miles upriver from Manaus. When the river rises at the peak of the rainy season, around two weeks or so from the time this picture was taken, the ferry boats seen here will be tying up to the bank at left.

"You bet we would!" said I, again. We waved goodbye to Manaus and were off to Barcellos on the next leg of our adventure.

The ferry was quite a large double-decker boat, perhaps 100 feet in length with a fairly shallow draft for navigating the constantly changing sandbars and water levels of the river. Below decks were the engine and cargo areas. The main deck held all manner of supplies, the crew's quarters as well as three Brahma bulls. The second deck had cabins (read closets), a bar, the kitchen and dining areas and a large open area for the passengers to hang their hammocks. The roof was piled high with more than a thousand empty tropical fish transport boxes. These boxes would be filled with fishes bound for the aquarium trade on the return trip.

We left Manaus at dusk and were almost immediately caught in the middle of a torrential Amazonian downpour which didn't let up for almost two days. This wouldn't have been so bad had we been on a big wide river with nothing to hit. Not so the Rio Negro.

Read further in chapter 3

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