Nature Expeditions – opening Peru’s secret treasure chest

Peru is known for its inland treasures, for its mountains and rainforests, ancient ruins and rich culture. Tourists flock here to visit the Inca city of Machu Pichu high up in the mountains and conservationists tell the world to protect Peru’s diverse rainforest. But there is an undiscovered treasure in Peru, or more accurately, in its oceans.

Stefan lives every day in amazement at the bounteous nature of the ocean and in disbelief at how invisible it is to the rest of the world. Peruvians, conservationists, tourists, international organisations… anyone and everyone has the general perception of the waters here as being, “Cold, green, with no visibility and just a load of anchovies!” This part of the Pacific is vaguely known to have a high biomass (meaning biological mass, i.e. a lot of anchovies), with 10% of the world’s fish catch coming from here. But what remains totally unrecognised is its astonishing biodiversity (meaning many different animals, i.e. not just anchovies!)

The richness of the Peruvian coastal waters is the result of two ocean currents. One is the Humboldt Current, which flows northwards along the Peruvian coast, bringing with it cool oxygen rich waters from Antarctica. The other is a strong upwelling close to the Peruvian coast which draws up nutrient rich water. These two currents combined cause a very high production of algae, creating the primary level in the food chain, and consequently forming the basis for an extraordinarily rich diversity of marine life. There is one big party going on here, and everyone is invited, be they a charismatic whale or a humble mollusc.

The figures which Stefan gives are, quite simply, staggering. Over 30 species of cetaceans either reside or migrate here to feed. That’s 37% of the total number of cetacean species in the world, and they hang out right in front of Peru’s coastline. There are 1,000 species of fish, 600 crustaceans and 1,400 molluscs. There are sea lions, fur seals and sea otters. There are 87 species of marine birds, 27 of which are albatrosses, shearwaters and petrels, and seven are gulls. These numbers can literally fly overhead without really sinking in, but Stefan painted a very clear picture when he described the Galapagos albatross.

“People travel from all round the world to see a Galapagos albatross on the Galapagos islands. But how much time does this bird spend there? It hatches… then it disappears… it comes back as an adult to breed for a few months… then it disappears. Where does it go? It goes to a place where it can find food and that place is here in the waters off Peru where it lives for 80-90% of its life!”

Bird lovers, divers and whale watchers flock to other well-known destinations to see cetaceans and birds, or go diving and kayaking. But Peru remains an unknown hotspot. The water here is dense, it is a “Floating soup of food”, but with no existing culture of marine tourism to promote it, no one knows of its rich beauty. Stefan’s pioneering marine ecotourism company Nature Expeditions is attempting to change this status quo.

When Stefan takes tourists out on trips with Nature Expeditions, they are at a loss for words. He has guided dolphin researchers from Europe, who often spend a whole week searching the Mediterranean to find just one pod of dolphins. In Peru they see three or four pods of dolphins on just one trip and their mouths hang open when Stefan tells them this is an everyday occurrence. More than 1,500 individual bottlenose dolphins reside along one short stretch of coastline south of Lima, which means there are a staggering six dolphins per kilometre.

He has guided kayak tour operators who have never in their life seen as many species of marine birds and animals as they see here on a two hour kayak trip. And he has watched tourists become emotional, even hysterical, at the experience of seeing dolphins swim up to the boat and look them in the eye.

On diving trips, Stefan smiles at divers who are amazed to see rocks covered in a carpet of life not just one animal deep, but two or three animals all sitting on top of each other! Stefan told me that he knows of one kelp forest diving spot in America where there are 40 dive operators all diving in the same area. In the kelp forests off Peru Nature Expeditions is the only operator in existence.

When Stefan takes tourists on trips to Parakas, to the south of Lima, they are blown away by the contrast there. To view the dead nothingness of desert meeting the alive richness of the ocean, and to watch dolphins leaping out of the water against a background of dramatic sand dunes, takes their breath away.

One of Stefan’s personal favourite nature experiences, which can be had a short boat ride from Lima, is swimming with sea lions. There are only five places in the world where you can swim with sea lions, and generally they have the added excitement of a potential shark attack thrown in. In Peru the sharks do not come close to sea lion colonies; there is just too much food for them elsewhere. As Stefan says, “Swimming with dolphins is not half as great as swimming with sea lions. Sea lions make contact with you, they come and very gently nibble at you to see what strange creature you are. They are funny, they play, they sneak up on you from behind and shoot away when you turn and look at them!”

In could be assumed that it is a blessing for Peru’s ocean to remain unknown to the world at large. After all, surely this means that it will not become spoilt. However, in Stefan’s words,

“That’s bull****! The ocean here is being overfished, contaminated and destroyed, and no one knows about it. Nobody sees the plastic bags and other waste floating in the waves. Because no one sees it, there is no one to shout out ‘Wait! What are you doing to this beautiful, ocean!’ Conservation only works when people are aware of the fact that beauty can disappear. When no one is aware, no one cares, and when no one cares, unscrupulous people are free to continue destroying.”

I asked Stefan what he hopes Mundo Azul and Nature Expeditions can achieve in the future. He replied, “Helping people to discover the beauty, so that they can care and take action to protect it.”

There is a huge potential in Peru for marine eco-tourism. At present Nature Expeditions is leading the way. Stefan is not worried about competitive companies being established because he knows there is room for them all. Indeed, the more successful Nature Expeditions and other companies become, the more known Peru’s ocean treasures become. Stefan hopes this would start the metaphorical snow ball rolling on its way to bringing him a much deserved income, providing incomes for other local people and, most importantly, gaining the worldwide recognition which the area needs to ensure its protection for the future.

But before we can carry on exploring Stefan’s hopes for the future, there are current issues still to address. Illegal dolphin killing is one example of how the oceans around Peru are not being looked after or noticed by the world at large. In my next post I will be writing about the work which Stefan, Nina and Mundo Azul have undertaken to end the trade, and what further measures are still needed to successfully bring it to a stop.

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