Swimmer Sets Off to Conquer the Amazon River
SCOTT SIMON, host:
A grizzled bear - get it? - bear of a man donned a wet suit, slipped into the turbulent Peruvian headwaters of the Amazon this week. Martin Strel of Slovenia is attempting a feat no other human being has dared, to swim the length of the world's mightiest river. From Rio de Janeiro, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.
JULIE MCCARTHY: Marathon swimmer Martin Strel is no stranger to feats that would exhaust lesser mortals just thinking about them. He says he'll spend 12 hours a day in the water and calculates that it will take him 70 days to reach the mouth of the Amazon River at the Atlantic Ocean - a distance of some 3,300 miles.
Mr. MARTIN STREL (Marathon Swimmer): It must be more than 50 miles a day, at the beginning 50 to 65 miles a day.
MCCARTHY: That's the length of Luxemburg every day. Strel's son Borut says his father's passion is swimming great rivers from beginning to end.
Mr. BORUT STREL (Martin Strel's son): I call my dad - I start calling him the river king. He has done the Danube in 2000. He has done the Mississippi in 2002, the Yangtze River in China in 2004. Martin's wish is to conquer all the biggest rivers in the world.
MCCARTHY: But the Amazon has 17 times the volume of water that the Mississippi River has, says Philip Fearnside, an ecologist with the National Institute of Amazon Research in Manaus. Fearnside says the behemoth Amazon has dangers that make boating hazardous, let alone swimming.
Mr. PHILIP FEARNSIDE (National Institute of Amazon Research): We have alligators, such as the black caiman, which is the biggest one here. It certainly can be fatal if one encounters it. There are various kinds of snakes, including anacondas. We have the candiru, which is a much feared fish, a very small fish that swims up your urethra. So it's very unadvisable to urinate in the water. And it has some sharp spines on the side so once it gets in, it can't come out again.
MCCARTHY: Martin's 21-person expedition is taking precautions. They're carrying gallons of animal blood aboard should they need to distract piranha away from Martin. But Michael Smith, a senior research scientist at Conservation International, says creatures, including piranha, are not as big a threat as they might seem. They are not, he says, looking for humans.
Mr. MICHAEL SMITH (Conservation International): They're in their place. We can pass through and usually not be part of their ecological cycle.
MCCARTHY: But Smith says there are other dangers, such as strong current and debris moving through the river.
Mr. SMITH: There will be tree trunks, in fact whole maps or parts of the forest will be ripped loose and carried along. There's some possibility that he could be overcome by a log that's moving faster than he is, for example.
MCCARTHY: Strel's son Borut says escort boats will hover about 15 to 20 feet from Martin, providing him the massive sustenance, 10,000 calories a day, that he'll consume.
Mr. STREL: So he eats a lot - bananas, chocolate, dried fruit - every 20 minutes, half an hour, let's say. Mostly he's drinking liquid foods. He turns over his back and have a little relax time, a couple of minutes, and talk to the team on an escort boat, and here's where he eats.
MCCARTHY: Tipping the scales at 250 pounds, Martin Strel has an unlikely physique of a swimmer.
Mr. STREL: He is now like a bear, you know. He is very heavy but he needs to be heavy because at the end he will be tiny, you know.
MCCARTHY: Martin will be 50 pounds lighter. He's got five different sized wet suits to accommodate the weight loss. To prepare himself, Martin Strel visited the Amazon on three occasions to study the river and the wisdom of the local inhabitants. He'll sleep about four hours a night. Muscle and joint pain will keep him from sleeping any longer. But he swears by the Slovenian red wine he'll imbibe each day as he swims. It's low in alcohol and good for the body, Martin says.
Mr. STREL: For this swimming, must be a little drunk, a very important message.
MCCARTHY: The one million dollar venture will be broadcast live on the Internet. Martin says he's dedicated his swim to the protection of the rain forest. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.
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