Mundo Azul – the wonder years

I asked Stefan what the most memorable highlights were from his and Nina’s time with Mundo Azul, and his answer was immediate and definitive, “Our early years when we organised and took part in diving expeditions.” He went on to recount three such adventures.

When Nina and Stefan decided to dive in Lake Titicaca they did so for two reasons. The first was for the pure thrill of the dive itself. Lake Titicaca is huge, it can even be seen from space, but, more importantly, it is situated at an altitude of 3,800 metres and as such is one of the highest diving destinations on the planet. Stefan and Nina were young and they were excited by the thought of breaking records; Nina would be the first woman ever to dive here, and only a handful of men had done so before them. Their second reason was to conduct a pilot study of the Kaira frog. This frog is endemic to the lake, considered holy by local people, and is also an endangered species.

At the small town of Llachon, they met the community leader who was afraid that their presence would upset Mamacocha, the spirit of the lake. So before diving, they appeased her by making offerings. They also had to prepare their equipment. This may be a relatively easy thing to do at low altitude, but at high altitudes everything becomes a hundred times harder. Stefan remembers how carrying the dive tank a short distance would cause him to “Lie on my back on the ground, looking like a beetle, gasping for air!” Just putting on a dive suit was a struggle, let alone charging a dive tank which at normal altitude may take 20 minutes, but at this altitude took one and a half hours.

Stefan and Nina had a successful dive in Lake Titicaca, thankfully with no misadventures. As Stefan says, “At this altitude you do not want to have an accident. If you do it will probably be the last one you ever have!” They were able to gather data and photographs of the rather strange looking Kaira frog, and pave the way for a future return to the lake with a film crew in tow.

Stefan and Nina were also the first people ever to dive in the Peruvian rainforest. For two years they had wanted to carry out preliminary research in a rainforest area, but had not located a river with good enough visibility. Rivers in rain forests are generally brown and if you stick your head in one you are likely to only see about 1cm in front of you. Then they made contact with another NGO working in Yanacharga Chemillen National Park who told them that in the dry season, provided it did not rain at all, the rivers were clear.

The opportunity to dive there came in collaboration with a Belgian film crew. The area they headed to was a beautiful wilderness of hills, canyons and forest, and at a high enough altitude not to have to worry about the presence of piranhas or crocodiles. The journey there was adventure enough, with 24 people and all their equipment travelling up the Iscozasin river. It took a whole day to navigate upstream. This was in part due to the dry season which meant water levels were low, which in turn meant rapids. Whenever they reached a rapid, the people had to carry the equipment on foot to meet the boat further up the river; a process that was repeated many times over. The following day saw them walking all day long through the forest to reach their destination. Stefan remembers how surreal it looked to see people walking through a rainforest with dive tanks on their backs!

After additionally surviving three potentially deadly attacks by the shushupe snake, their efforts paid off. When they arrived at the river they found it to be crystal clear and wonderfully warm. It was “Like diving in an aquarium. The low water level meant that fish of all sizes were trapped in these small lakes by rapids on either side. They would just swim round and round us as we watched. It was a stunning sight!”

The film crew were able to document the area’s treasures to their heart’s content, and Stefan and Nina had the satisfaction of knowing they had seen a huge logistical operation through from the initial idea to a successful end result.

Stefan and Nina’s expedition to the Lake of the Condors has to be the most fantastical story of the three. The lake is situated at an altitude of 2,700 metres, in a cloud forest amidst steep mountains. The area is of archaeological interest with its unexcavated remains of the Chachapoya people, a culture which pre-dates the Incas. Indeed when the Incas first arrived here, the Chachaboyas rebelled against the fearsome warriors, bringing severe punishment upon themselves as a consequence.

Chachapoya way of life, and death, included mummifying the dead. The people constructed small buildings in which to place the mummies and, somehow, positioned them high up the vertical cliffs of surrounding mountains. Today, the area around the lake contains the mostly undiscovered remains of these people. It was also thought the lake itself contained hidden archaeological treasures and this was the reason for Stefan and Nina’s expedition. They were leading a team of German archaeologists intent on mapping Chachaboya remains within the lake. In addition, it gave Stefan and Nina a wonderful opportunity to conduct a first ever biological survey.

Stefan described the challenges which this expedition entailed. On leaving Leymebamba, the last village en route, the team of four divers plus film crew travelled by horse onwards into the forested mountains. It took 28 human carriers, 47 mules, plus the team on horseback to transport everything necessary for the dive. As Stefan said, “It was like an eighteenth century expedition, with a caravan of people and animals a kilometre long!” Food, tents, equipment, fuel… everything that they might possibly need had to be carried by human, horse or mule through the forest to their destination.

They arranged the expedition for the dry season, as navigating steep mountains on horseback in the rainy season would be asking for disaster! However, the weather, or the spirit of the lake, had its own intentions. It is believed by the local people that all the lagoons have spirits, and these spirits will act to defend themselves from intruders. The team had a 12 hour journey over a mountain of 3,600 metres and down into the valley beyond. This would be a difficult enough journey in good conditions, but on the morning of their departure the dry season gave way to heavy rains. It rained for the whole 12 hour journey, forcing the horses to cross mud which at times came up their stomachs, and it continued raining that night as they arrived and made camp. It proceeded to continue raining for the whole of the next day and night, while the team struggled to make trails from their camp to the lake and build a platform on the lake in preparation for their dive. That night, all was completed and they were due to dive the following day. But then the leader of their group of carriers and support personnel, announced, “The lake does not want us here. Tomorrow morning we will have to leave you!”

The team attempted to convince him otherwise. With his shaman’s knowledge he advised them that their only chance was to make an offering to the lake and calm her spirit. There was some secret laughter from the team of archaeologists, but the following morning they duly trudged an hour through thick mud under the worst rains yet to reach the edge of the lake. Each person carried a personal object to offer the spirit and, amidst much ritual and chewing of Coca leaves, the offerings were made.

The very moment that their offerings touched the surface of the lake, a ray of sun shone on the exact spot where the group stood. Within an hour the clouds lifted from the surface of the lake and disappeared. After two days and nights of torrential rain, the sun came out. There was no more quiet laughing from the team of archaeologists!

With the spirit of the lake appeased, the team were able to conduct their surveys. However, there was one last twist; after three days of diving, not a single sign of archaeological remains were found and neither was a single fish or other aquatic life. The Lake of the Condors was either very much dead or its spirit was keeping its treasures for itself!

Nina and Stefan consider themselves to be immensely fortunate to have experienced the wonders of diving in such extreme, untouched and beautiful places. Diving by its very nature offers a window into another world. Diving in these locations must have been like visiting another galaxy; what a remarkable thing to experience! The memories which they carry from those early years of Mundo Azul remain in their hearts to this very day.

They have of course experienced many other wonders of Peru… in particular the amazing diversity of life existing along the coast, which Mundo Azul works to protect and Nature Expeditions hopes to share with others. This bounteous marine environment will be the celebratory subject of my next post before moving on to the less joyous topic of illegal dolphin killing.

For a fuller flavour of Nina and Stefan’s expeditions  why not watch a short film about diving in Lake Titicaca and two films, part 1 and part 2, about diving in the Peruvian rainforest!


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