Cocha is the word for lake, but a specific type of lake known in English as an oxbow lake. These form usually over very long periods of time in response to rather complex hydrodynamics. Once a river reaches a level plain, it is free to create the beautiful serpentine shape many of us may have recognized during flights around the world. Rivers pick up sediment from riverbanks in the fastest areas of the river, which happen to be on the outside of a river bend where the water is flowing the fastest. The river then deposits sediment in the slower portions of the river, which happens to be on the inside of river bends. Through this action, rivers are always demolishing and rebuilding the land it flows through. Over time, this process brings the two extreme ends of a river bend closer and closer to each other until they are finally close enough for the water to push through the thin wall of land separating them. When the water finally breaches, it creates a straighter course for the water to flow through, leaving the large bend in the river to become an oxbow lake, or cocha.
Lobo is the local word for wolf. Yes, there are wolves in the cocha that we are headed to today, but they are lobos del rio, or river wolves. The river wolf is actually an otter, and here in Amazonia hides the largest otter in the world, which can often grow up to the length of an average adult human. While this cocha was named after this giant otter, nobody has seen the family known to have live there for some time now, and people have been beginning to worry if they have left the cocha.
It was a short hike to the cocha, perhaps two kilometers. We stopped along the way to enjoy climbing some of the large rainforest trees with huge buttresses and vines, and stopped at several spots to strain our necks in search for some of the beautiful forest canopy birds flitting through the treetops.
photo by: Frances Buerkens
There were two wooden canoes at the entrance to the cocha. We all climbed in one, and pushed off. Gliding softly in silence into the center of the lake we looked around, wondering where to head first. Across the water a large kingfisher stood atop a tree over the water, scanning for unwary fish near the surface. The water seemed to be a mix between your common muddy brown, and an unpalatable green like split pea soup.
photo by: Frances Buerkens
After gazing around us in wonder for a moment, we promptly chose a direction with little reason, and headed off. A larger bird flitted to a perch under the canopy, flashing some bright red as it landed. Through my binos I could make out it was the bright red belly I had seen. This bird had a long tale, an emerald colored back and head, and surprisingly drab, grey wings. I couldn’t see the bird completely clearly due to the rock of the canoe, but this was enough to tell me it was one of the species of trogons that are somewhat common to those searching for them in these forests.
A moment later a rustle in the bushes far ahead accompanied with an odd cough-like hissing sound broke the silence of the lake. We could see bright reddish-brown feathers slapping through the brush overhanging the cocha, and we knew we had found a group of perhaps one of the oddest animals one can find in the Amazon, the hoatzin. This prehistoric looking bird is the size of a turkey. Flying from perch to perch, these large birds are just as clumsy any large bird can be, but they apparently don’t notice. They crash through dense foliage, making their way up to a point in the forest they can easily fly from in case of emergency. Keeping an eye on us, they peer out from behind larger clumps of foliage as if there is a chance they have made their way to safety void of detection. I can’t help but giggle at their cartoon-like character, reminding me of the foolishly aloof loonytoon vultures I watched growing up.
We watch one group for some time, waiting to take a picture, when finally one seems to have lost its inhibition and flies right down in front of us in plane view, perching uneasily atop a sparsely vegetated cecropia tree. It flaps its wings to maintain balance until the tree finally ceases to sway beneath its weight. Frances snaps some pictures quickly, unsure of how long the bird will remain, while I smile through my binoculars. Their bright red eyes remind me of an albino pet rabbit. As if the red eyes didn’t stand out enough, they have bright blue skin surrounding their eyes, and a sparsely spiked orange mo-hawk streaking over the crest of their head. We sit and stare at the bird for a few minutes as it does the same, constantly cocking its neck back and forth, craning it as far as possible as if to get a better view of us as well.
photo by: Frances Buerkens
The hoatzins turned out to be by far the most abundant animal at the cocha. Every hundred feet we advanced it seemed a new group of them exploded haphazardly from the brush near the water, frantically trying to get up higher to safety, all the while pausing from time to time to gaze at us cryptically as if we couldn’t see them. This is by far the most awkward animal I have ever seen. The locals say they taste terrible, and would be hard pressed to eat them even if they hadn’t eaten for some time. These birds eat leaves, a very uncommon practice in the bird world, and they have claw-like hooks protruding from their elbows at birth, a remnant of their reptilian lineage.
After making it to one grass filled end of the cocha, we turned around and headed back the other direction. We worked along the banks slowly and quietly, searching for hiding animals along the way. As we rounded one corner I traced streaks of lime green algae that reminded me of the way pollen coats the lakes in spring back in the states. I suddenly noticed the streaks were moving, and saw there was a wake extending from around the corner. Just as I realized there must be something moving in the water ahead, brown dots popped up, breaking the horizon of placid water.
The family of giant otters appeared suddenly, swirling, spinning, and rolling over each other, completely unaware of our presence. We sat motionlessly until two of them spotted us, and uttered a series of grunt like barks as they turned and swam in our direction. Bobbing up and down as they approached for a better view, they could easily lift their necks almost two feet out of the water while still swimming forwards.
photo by: Frances Buerkens
“Oh my God, how big are these things,” questions Frances as she finally gets a clear view of them bobbing towards us.
“A little less than two meters supposedly,” I uttered, trying not to make to much sound or movement.
Frances began snapping photos of them, and finally they had seen all they needed to when they were about 100 feet away. She later shared with us that due to her vision, the white streaks on the otters’ necks looked to be wide open mouths, causing some question about not only the size of these animals, but subsequently her safety as well.
What we presumed to be the young behind the adults had been playing in the water with each other while the parents came to inspect the aberration in their lake. As soon as the parents returned the group, they swam past the youngsters, who promptly followed. It was then apparent they were headed in the opposite direction, most likely back to their sheltered campsite along the lakeshore under some thick cover.
We followed as quickly as we could in the canoe, but we hadn’t quite perfected the teamwork of paddling the canoe in a straight line, let alone while in pursuit of creatures perfectly adapted to swimming quickly in water. As we rounded the next corner, they dipped under some overhanging foliage, leaving only several wakes spreading across the lake. We looked at each other with grins – a family of six lobos!
Lobos are apparently quite endangered, and while it is known that they exist in this area of the quite remote Peruvian Amazon, scientists are rather unsure how healthy their populations are. The only places they are known to be doing well are in the northern regions of the Amazonian Guianas. One can guess their plight – the usual impacts due to presence of man: hunting, trapping for furs, and loss of habitat due to deforestation.
In less than one month I have been so fortunate to see so much here already: Many species of monkeys up close, an 8 meter long monster anaconda up close, a rare black cayman 3 meters long basking along the riverbank, many birds I have dreamed about seeing for years and years, and now a very rare glimpse of a family of lobos playing in the middle of a cocha.