Swimming with pink river dolphins

This bizarre creature is a pink river dolphin, a species never before photographed underwater in the wild until Mark Carwardine embarked on a mission to the Rio Negro in Brazil.

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The pink river dolphin of Brazil article spread

A bizarre creature looms from the murky depths of the Amazon River. It’s a pink river dolphin, which has never been photographed underwater in the wild – until now. Mark Carwardine reveals the amazing images from his mission to the Rio Negro in Brazil.

It’s rare for a plan like this to come together. The idea to photograph pink river dolphins came from a letter in BBC Wildlife in 2007, which showed an eye-catching picture of a man floating in an Amazonian river with two of these strange creatures. Good images of these dolphins in the wild are virtually non-existent and, having had only fleeting encounters with them myself, I had assumed that getting great shots – wild and free – would be almost impossible. But if I could just get as close as that swimmer…

With US photographer Kevin Schafer, I searched the internet for images of genuinely wild pink river dolphins – without success. However, we did find several places in Colombia, Peru and Brazil where we thought it might be possible to swim with these cetaceans.

We eventually picked a location in Brazil, where villagers had been feeding pink river dolphins for over a year. Within 24 hours, we had decided to go.

There may be few photos of the pink river dolphin, but the species isn’t on the verge of extinction. It has the widest distribution of the world’s surviving river dolphins and is the most abundant. There are probably tens of thousands in the wild. Yet the species is still under threat.

Destruction of the its tropical rainforest home is causing declines in some areas, and deaths also occur through mercury poisoning, usually close to goldmines where mercury is used to separate gold from rock. South American Indian folklore protected pink river dolphins in the past, since it was considered bad luck to harm them, but such traditional beliefs are rapidly disappearing, and hunting may also be on the increase.

A strange creature

The pink river dolphin is a strange-looking animal, with a small hump instead of a dorsal fin, a long beak and enormous flippers. Its pinkish colour is caused by blood flow beneath the skin, and varies according to age, water clarity, temperature and location.

This is the largest of the river dolphins and, in the right areas, the easiest to see. It tends to be more inquisitive and playful than its closest relatives, and is sometimes known to approach boats and swimmers.

In the dry season, the species is confined to rivers and tributaries, but in the rainy season, it frequently enters flooded jungles and grasslands. It seems to prefer the junctions between rivers, probably because these are good places to hunt.

Though capable of bursts of speed, this dolphin is a relatively slow swimmer. Its body isn’t designed for speed, but rather to manoeuvre between trees and submerged vegetation in its flooded forest home. It is active day and night, but most fishing activity – for more than 40 different prey items – tends to occur in the early morning and late afternoon.

The animal usually hunts alone, but sometimes gathers in loose aggregations where there are good numbers of fish to hunt, and has been seen working in groups to herd and attack large shoals.

Making friends

We found ‘our’ dolphins in a tributary of the Rio Negro, and spent a week with them. They were large animals and surprisingly boisterous, since they were accustomed to being fed by humans. They frequently bumped and even nipped us, and it was only when the locals were in the river with us, offering freshly caught fish, that they calmed down.

Our underwater encounters were also challenging photographically. The water was warm but the visibility terrible. The dolphins were often either too close or too far away, barely visible in the murk. To add to our difficulties, the red, tannin-rich water made everything look like a scene from Mars. We had to use wide-angle lenses from just centimetres away.

Shooting at such close range gave us a unique, fish-eye view of these other-worldly animals. They have tiny eyes, and their long, tooth-filled mouths are angled upwards, giving the impression of permanent smiles. But their most striking feature is their bulging, chubby cheeks, which make them look like children with their mouths full. These cheeks hamper their downward vision and may explain why they often swim upside-down – it probably help them to see better.

Kevin and I took thousands of pictures between us. But as all wildlife photographers feel at the end of a trip, we couldn’t help thinking… if only we’d had just one more week. In fact, I think I might go back.

To visit Mark Carwardine's website, click here

To find out more about river dolphins, click here.

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