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
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.
Fish Market in Manaus. It's still in use and a lot better looking
than the new strip-mall style market.
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
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
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.
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".
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.
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.
further in chapter 3