Swimming With Pink River Dolphins … Just Part Of Life In The Amazon

 In Dr Anne Small

Yes Dr Anne Small did see piranhas! Here is part two of her week on the river in the amazing Amazon …

Fruit ivory and fishing with bubbles … what an amazing culture

Dr_Anne_Small_Amazon_VillageThe tributaries of the Amazon change their course frequently – about every 12 years – so often the villages have to move. The banks of these tributaries are caving in and falling into the water all the way along their courses because of the flooding for three to four months per year, and the huge amount of water flowing through them.

The people are very friendly and the handicrafts are beautiful, especially the very colourful animals that they make out of fibres from various plants. All the bright colours such as purple red, yellow, blue, green, come from local plants … nothing from China!

Handcrafts made from the raw materials of the Amazonian forest.

There is a particular fruit that when it hardens, they carve it and call it ‘fruit ivory’ – they carve animals, birds, fish and turtles. It is as hard as ivory too.

The guides explain that the people of the Amazon live in two worlds – one is when the land is flooded and they have to retreat to their semi-permanent village or high ground, and the other world is the dry season when most of the land is not flooded. They plant rice on those lower lands along the riverbank. Their staple diet is fish/fish/some chicken and pork/rice/beans/potato/more fish/ and ever so tasty fresh fruit. They live into their 70s and 80s.

They say that all the children attend primary school. Most of the people live close to the riverbank and are fishermen. We saw a man with a spear which he uses to spear fish with but the water is cloudy (like the Yarra) and you can not see anything under the surface – all you see are air bubbles of different sizes and patterns coming to the surface. The guide explained that the fishermen can tell which fish or cayman (small crocodiles) are making the bubbles and in what direction it is swimming!

The trees along the riverbank have adapted to being underwater for at least four months of the year by two mechanisms – 1, their roots grow a waterproof protective coating around them (at a microscopic level), and 2, these same roots have tiny channels inside them in which they store the oxygen they will need during the wet season – amazing adaption!

One afternoon we swam in a lagoon. The water was warm and beautifully soft because it is pure rain water (and tannin from the land). Three pink river dolphins swam around us at a distance of about 10 metres – what fun.


A quick swim with the dolphins!

We saw the piranha fish which can devour a cow in 24 hours – we were assured they were not in the lagoon! They have a row of very sharp teeth and a very strong jaw. We went night light spotting to see the red eyes of the caymans – they too are everywhere.

We were due to explore a tributary this morning but the water level was too low. The expedition leader explained that with global warming, the water levels are becoming much lower. Usually they would be able to travel up this waterway until September.


Shamans and their spiritual beliefs

The three naturalists (who have eyesight as sharp as an eagle) explained about the different races of people and said there are no head hunters anymore “although there are a few small villages far away in the jungle’.

They spoke about shamans (medicine men and women) and the people’s belief in spirits.

Some of the many beliefs and myths of the Amazon natives:

  1. Pink River Dolphins
    – are evil
    – if a menstruating girl goes swimming she can get pregnant by the dolphin and she will either have a miscarriage or the baby will be deformed like a dolphin/fish and die.
    – you can make a love potion with a dolphin’s tooth, have a shaman perform a ceremony on this potion, rub some into your hands, rub this on the body of the person you want, stay inside your house for a week and when you come out the person will ‘fall into your arms’.
  2. Jungle Spirit
    – owns the animals. When the people go hunting, the Spirit can make howling noises to scare you away and to protect the animals. If you do not run away then the spirit will throw mud and wood at you and you will leave. If the Spirit, which is the size of a youth, has one foot bigger than the other, it wants you to catch some animals and you will see this Spirit herding some animals into your path.
  3. Birds
    – a mother had a lot of children and she wanted to get rid of them. She took them all far into the jungle and left them there. Some days later when they were just about to die, they were transformed into the birds which we see today.
  4. Humans and Animals
    – The natives believe that 200 to 300 years ago people could make themselves into animals and back into humans. There are stories of this happening all over Amazonia, into Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador etc. Because these stories are so widespread and are so similar, the people believe this must have happened.
An Amazon fresh water dolphin, photographed from the deck of the Delphin II boat

Nearing completion of this trip, I would thoroughly recommend it, despite my mosquito bites (and hopes that I don’t get dengue fever, malaria and pregnant from the pink river dolphins!). I want to give National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions a plug. It was a very well organised tour, the boat is lovely, the food is plentiful and fabulous, and the staff are friendly and knowledgeable.

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