Educational cruise of the Amazon turns learning into a real trip

September 04, 1994|By Gwyn Willis | Gwyn Willis,Special to The Sun

With travel packages focusing on eco-tourism and adventure tours on the rise, "edu-tourism" has evolved as a kind of sub-set for travelers. Within the context of soft adventure, some tour operators offer programs that emphasize learning.

Concluding a nine-day edu-tour from the headwaters of the Amazon in Iquitos, Peru, through Colombia and finishing in Manaus, Brazil, in March, I felt more like a student reaching graduation than a tourist reaching my destination. My on-board professors were authorities on the topics of birds, fish, wildlife, flora and fauna, and ecosystems. My fellow students, a k a passengers, spanned a scope of ages and interests. My classroom was the Amazon Rain Forest.

Billed as an Amazon Navigation tour, this trip was offered through the National Aquarium in Baltimore. The ship that would navigate the mighty Amazon River cruised into the urban waters of Baltimore's harbor on a familiarization tour last September, and while it was there, would-be travelers were offered the opportunity to roam the comfortable decks of the Columbus Caravelle, a luxurious 280-passenger vessel, for a dockside preview. Expansive public areas were bordered by sweeping window views. Passenger cabins brought comfort and efficiency space to a science. And, a large meeting room with audiovisual equipment and chairs arranged theater-style hinted at the seminars that set the edu-tour apart from other trips.

While the tour operator for this trip is based in Laguna Beach, Calif., it is not uncommon for such outfits to market their products through zoos and aquariums across the country. In addition to scientists and members of the National Aquarium, representatives of the Dallas Zoo and the Palm Springs Desert Museum also signed on for this "live and learn" travel experience.

In fact, there was enough academic expertise on this edu-tour that one could almost qualify for "Amazon 101" just by participating in polite conversation at dinner. According to Christopher Andrews, senior director of animal husbandry and operations at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Marquest Tours of California approached him as a resource. "They told me they needed a fish person, a bird person and a reptile person for this tour," he said. "Chuck Siegel, curator of birds for the Dallas Zoo, and Jim Cornett, the curator of natural science for the Palm Springs Desert Museum, filled the latter two slots. I guess I was the fish person."

According to Dr. Andrews -- who has a Ph.D. in fish, parasites and diseases -- edu-tourism parallels the role of the National Aquarium. "People expect us to teach them. More than species on display in mini-habitats, organizations such as ourselves, zoos and natural museums need to play an active role in teaching preservation and conservation."

If their members and visitors benefit, so do their staff. "Animal husbandry people need to get out into the field to apply their knowledge, to be pro-active in helping to conserve our environment. Talk isn't enough," he said.

Formerly the curator of the Aquarium, Insect House and Reptile House at the London Zoo, Dr. Andrews promotes the conservation of freshwater habitats on a global basis via his work for the the World Conservation Union. Jim Cornett of the Desert Museum is developing a series of exhibitions and publications on ecosystems of the world. He and the Desert Museum have presented exhibitions on Australia, South America, Mexico and Africa. This journey marked Mr. Cornet's fourth trip to the Amazon Basin.

Chuck Siegel of the Dallas Zoo has traveled to Peru several times since 1984 to study birds. Most of his experience with Amazonian birds comes from netting and leg banding approximately 1,800 individual birds. He is closely associated with the Amazon Conservation Fund (ACF) -- a non-profit organization that supports the 900,000-acre Reserva Communal Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo, southeast of Iquitos, Peru, with community development and wildlife conservation programs.

Not all the experts on board this trip were graduates of a college classroom. Jorge Sanches came to his knowledge and skill by way of the rain forest -- a complex model of diversity ranging from the varzeas (the muddy flatlands of the Amazon), to the terra firma, the highlands, and its inhabitants, the River People.

And Moacir "Mo" Fortes, a native of Manuas, routinely conducts multi-day tours of the Amazon and Rio Negro on his small boat.

On a grander, more luxurious scale, tours such as Marquest's Amazon Navigation cruise offer land-sea packages from domestic jumping-off points such as Miami. A five-hour flight to Iquitos, Peru, puts travelers at the headwaters of the Amazon and the beginning of their journey by ship to Colombia and Brazil. Cruises on vessels of this size are limited to the rainy season, roughly December through June, when the river is at its highest.

Amazon camp

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