We speak to Mark Baker to learn why he left behind the world of lumbering to create a true expedition cruise into the heart of the Brazilian Amazon.
There are a number of places to visit the Amazon Rainforest in South America and a large choice of cruises in Peru and Ecuador. But listen to Mark Baker, founder of the Tucano Amazon Cruise in Brazil, and he will tell you that he has created a true 'expedition' cruise experience in a genuinely pristine area of the jungle visited by few others. And in our opinion, he is right - which is why the Tucano is our preferred Amazon Cruise in Brazil. To find out more about the interesting origins of the cruise, the commitment to sustainability and the often overwhelming experience enjoyed by guests, we pose the key questions to a man who has worked in this jungle wilderness for four decades now.
Mark introducing some travellers to the wilderness of the Amazon
VT: Tell us a bit about how you came to operate the Tucano expedition cruise in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon. Where did the idea first come from?
MB: Well, what became the Tucano Amazon Cruise actually began in 1981 as a lumber importing company, buying wood from sawmills in the Amazon and shipping it to factories in the USA. Back then it was easy to believe that the Amazon Rainforest was inexhaustible - we were always very keen on nature and somehow believed that we were not contributing to deforestation. But by about 1987 I came to understand that that was not at all true; we were directly contributing to deforestation by cutting down the trees. It seems obvious now, but it was not so clear at that time. So, in 1988 we shut down Amazonex Lumber Company, rather than sell it to someone else, and employing our familiarity with the Amazon and true love for the wild forest, started our ecotourism company. We were one of the very first in North America to offer this kind of travel.
The vessel itself is modeled on the classic steam riverboats of yesteryear, how have you expanded on that starting point to create an on-board environment conducive to exploring the Amazon?
The Motor Yacht Tucano is really only stylistically modeled after the classic steamships. Actually, it is a very modern and highly sophisticated small ship that employs, in both design and operations, the cutting edge of passenger shipping technology. Our vessel conforms to very high standards of safety in both construction and operations procedures, which are very closely monitored and certified by an international classification inspection society several times per year.
What were the main technical challenges that you had to overcome to create a boat fit for such an extreme purpose?
The M/Y Tucano is the fourth vessel vessel that we operated in the Amazon and we have learned a lot from the first ones. In general, the great challenge is to create a vessel that can voyage far into wilderness rivers and enable travelers to have a true expeditionary experience in both safety and comfort. The rivers we navigate are often narrow, winding and shallow and we are almost exactly on the equator so it can get very hot. There are almost no people where we go, just wild forest, so we need to take everything with us that our travellers will need for our voyages. Finally, it is really important to us to actively engage the forest in a way that is zero impact and sustainable, so this has resulted in a very elaborate solar generation system, electric motors for our launches, kayak expeditions and a long list of practices that enable us to get in and directly experience this fantastic wilderness, without diminishing it.
How would you define the sort of person attracted to the Tucano cruise? Who would the experience best suit?
Travellers on our cruises are seeking an experience that is an active and meaningful - a true expedition into the rainforest. They want to be comfortable, but they are not seeking luxury in the remote wilderness. Rather, they would like to have an experience that is way beyond the normal clichés of travel, way beyond an ordinary tour. They would like an experience that is real, authentic, and offers the very best opportunity to observe the flora, fauna, and the fantastic environment of the Amazon. That is really the definition of an expedition cruise, and for the most part only our vessel the Motor Yacht Tucano offers this kind of experience among all of the Amazon cruises offered.
The Tucano reaches parts of the Amazon that so few get to see, far beyond the glow of the cities and towns. How does this transform the experience enjoyed by the traveller?
It is fascinating to watch the transformation our travellers undergo during a cruise. Like all of us these days, they are reluctant to fully believe the romantic marketing slogans that always are applied to some tours. So when the travelers first arrive on the boat they are justifiably skeptical and really have a barrier to believing in the experience. But after day two, a big change starts to change place in the thinking of the travelers. They begin to believe - they begin to comprehend that they are really, actually exploring far into the rainforest in a way that very few people in their lives will ever be able to. For many travellers it is really an enlightening experience, even life changing. Most really strengthen their affinity to nature on our cruises - some of them cry when they leave the vessel and sometimes we do too; to witness such beauty with like minded travelers and our staff can be a very moving experience. Though I have gone into the forest countless times over the last 40 years I never fail myself to experience a sense of wonder for this lovely, complex and profound place.
Perhaps you could give us a flavour of the variety and volume of wildlife one might expect or hope to encounter as you venture further away from Manaus
We keeps lists of the creatures we observe, so from cruise to cruise we have a very good idea of what should be observed. Because we travel through a great variety of habitats, we also see a great variety of flora and fauna. The story of the Amazon is very high diversity, but low density of wildlife - so we will see many kinds of creatures, but not many of each kind. We will usually see about 100 kinds of birds on a cruise, 5 or 6 kinds of monkeys, 6 or 7 types of other mammals, 7 or 8 varieties of reptiles and amphibians, and thousands of kinds of plants. Among all these creatures are the signature fauna of the Amazon, such as piranhas, howler monkeys, giant eagles, some pretty big snakes, sloths, agoutis, the giant river otter, sometimes peccaries, tarantulas, giant toads, caiman, fish eating bats, trees that walk, night blooming bat pollinated plants, and really a multitude of of weird and wonderful creatures.
Trees that walk? I think you should perhaps expand upon that...
There is a kind of tree called the Paxiuba that slowly, very slowly, locomotes itself through the forest by sprouting new prop roots in the direction of better growth and allowing the prop roots in the less favorable area wither. Locally everyone believes that these plants are walking away from shade to brighter parts of the forest. In this way, the tree actually moves itself toward the sun and can cover a considerable distance over time! There are parasitic trees too; the Acariquara actually taps into the roots of other trees!
Finally, how does one balance a desire to show these unspoilt eco-systems to adventurous travelers with the need to sustain and protect the environment and wildlife which you seek to showcase?
Ecotourism is one of the few ways that revenue can be generated in a non-extractive way from wild rainforest. It is crucial that people that live in Amazonia find a way to make an income, without destruction, and our tours provide this. Our expedition staff and all of the support staff involved are dedicated conservationists and our livelihoods and our hearts are in preserving the forest. Our company has a highly detailed sustainability plan that we share with the travellers. This guides how we behave in the forest, how we react in isolated remote communities, how we conserve resources on our vessel, and how we try to promote sustainable tourism in every way on our cruises.
This plan and our diligent adherence to it has a way of having our travellers and staff join as a team; a sense of shared purpose to explore and preserve this wonderful place. It is a very compelling feeling that we are very proud to say most of our guests share and adds an additional dimension to the work that we do. The Amazon is more than a place, it is also our home - so preservation is not an abstract idea that is remote from our daily lives. Many of our staff have worked with us for decades and all of us, have a commitment to preservation.
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