Enchanted by Cocha Cashu
When people think of the tropical rainforest, I believe the picture most have in their minds is of trees. Lots and lots of tall trees. An immensity of dense vegetation, lush and humid, like an endless field of broccoli when viewed from a plane, or a wall-to-wall carpet of mosses when viewed by a god.
(Or people might think of those trees cut down in swathes, to make room for cattle, oil palms, or roads.)
But when I think of the rainforest, I think of water. Of streams and rivers and lakes. These are the habitats of giant otters and I spent seven years studying this charismatic species in southeastern Peru.
Now I work for the Cocha Cashu Biological Station, which lies in the heart of Manu National Park. The Station is surrounded by forest, and most visitors spend their days unravelling its secrets, only to emerge for meals and conversation.
For me, Cocha Cashu has another key attraction. The Station was built on the shore of an oxbow lake. ‘Cocha Cashu’ means ‘Cashu lake’ in Quechua, and ‘Cashu’ refers to its shape, like that of the cashew nut. For decades, Cocha Cashu has been home to a family of giant otters. So, whenever I now visit the Station, I spend most of my time on the lake, in the company of the otters - or searching for them – just as I did between 1999 and 2006.
My most recent trip to Cashu was in October this year. It coincided with a visit by a group of high-profile primatologists and artists. This meant that, for five days, the forest trails became highways of activity, with monkey researchers and photographers tramping back and forth, eagerly scanning the canopy for howlers or spiders, or the understory for squirrels, capuchins, tamarins and marmosets.
Some of these monkey specialists took time off from their agile subjects and joined me on the lake. I love to take people for boat rides along the shore, because they never fail to be awed by the lake’s beauty. This time was no exception. One lady, thanking me after a three-hour excursion, was moved to tears - somewhat to her consternation. She didn’t know that it seemed the most natural of responses and I was gratified by it. Almost as though the lake was mine, my pride and joy.
I appreciate the forest for what it is, a green repository of extreme biodiversity, even if most species are difficult to observe amongst the tumult of leaves. But when I’m surrounded by towering trees, I can’t help feeling a little claustrophobic after a while. And when I return to the Station and catch a glimpse of the lake – of space and of freedom - I can’t suppress a small rush of relief.
The photo below was taken by my friend Christine Paige. I’m in the stern of the canoe and my passenger is Sarah Landeo, a Peruvian student participating in our three-month Tropical Ecology and Field Techniques Course. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This image epitomises the majesty and rich hues of the forest as seen on an early morning from the lake. It also highlights the serenity and solitude of Cocha Cashu.
But what you can’t see in this photo are the multitudes of birds, or the tadpoles bobbling the water’s surface, or the proboscis bats hanging in a row, like beads, from an overhanging branch.
What you can’t hear is the gasp of a turtle, the plaintive wails of begging otter cubs, or the lapping of wavelets against the hull.
And what you can’t feel is the rough wood of the paddle, the heat of the sun on your shoulders, or the tickle of a salt-drugged butterfly on your arm.
In the forest, I know I’m surrounded by life though, to me, it seems subdued, held in suspension, like an insect trapped in amber. Life abounds on the lake too, but here it is in constant motion, exuberant and lyrical, stirring at the shores, rustling in the trees, stitching across the sky, and flirting in the tannin depths.
I often wonder why more scientists don’t conduct research on the lake. Many don’t know what they’re missing. But that’s okay. I’m content to have Cocha Cashu all to myself :-)