River dolphins: Angels in the Amazon

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27th July 2010
Submitted by heather

Hot, heady and unforgettable, the Amazon is the world’s mightiest river, but its wildlife can be elusive unless you know where to look.

River dolphins: Angels in the Amazon

Hot, heady and unforgettable, the Amazon is the world’s mightiest river, but its wildlife can be elusive unless you know where to look. Sophie Stafford learned how to penetrate its secrets and discovered angels.

Swimming with dolphins is one thing – swimming with piranhas is something altogether different, I realised, as I perched on the edge of the skiff, shivering in my swimsuit. The skipper was watching me with what can only be described as a smug leer, and belatedly I wondered what he knew that I didn’t.

While my travelling companions blithely splashed around in the mud-brown water, I hesitated, searching the tannin-stained depths for the flick of a fin or flash of an orange belly that might reveal danger. But I couldn’t see more than a few inches below the surface and the water was 20m deep.

Peace-loving piranhas

As I teetered there, I recalled our guide, Ado, saying that piranhas dislike open, murky waters and prefer to hang around in the clearer, sheltered ‘blackwaters’ at the edges of the Amazon’s lakes and lagoons.

“So,” he smiled reassuringly, “you can safely swim in the middle of a lake without attracting unwanted attention.” In any case, the piranhas are only dangerous when the water level is low and their food supply poor, apparently...

Taking a deep breath, I decided that our hosts were unlikely to offer up our intrepid band of journalists as piranha bait and jumped in. The water was surprisingly warm – like swimming in a mug of old tea – and as I bobbed around, I comforted myself with the thought that the piranhas would likely nibble someone else’s juicier appendages before they turned to my ‘spaghetti toes’.

Finding angels

You might not be surprised to learn that we had not travelled all the way to Peru, taking a slow boat down the Amazon from Iquitos to the heart of the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, a 350-kilometre journey, just to swim with piranhas. Our dream was to share the water with the area’s most famous inhabitants – the pink river dolphins or ‘botos’.

And, so far, our prospects were looking good. Unlike most other dolphins of my acquaintance, the botos turned out to be surprisingly easy to see, as they are invariably found hunting around the mouths of the river’s tributaries and streams, where schools of fish are washed in from the lagoons. Indeed, we saw them most days as we cruised in and out of creeks and backwaters.

A ring of angels

But botos are hard to get a good look at, as you never know where they’ll pop up next. Despite their thick bodies, they move surprisingly quickly, their grey backs and bulbous heads briefly breaking the surface on one side of the boat and then the other. It is, as one of my companions observed poetically, like being surrounded by angels.

Indeed, traditional Amazonian myth affords the boto magical powers. According to legend, at night it becomes a handsome young man who seduces and impregnates girls, then returns to the river the next morning. Such superstitions have helped to protect the species here as locals are loathe to kill it, believing this will bring bad luck.

Unfortunately, today, we were the unlucky ones – and the botos were noticeable by their absence.

Softly, softly, catchee caiman

Back on the boat with all my digits intact, I breathed a sigh of relief that turned into a ironic laugh as I spotted our elusive swimming companions breaching on the far side of the lake. With wildlife, it’s all in the timing.

Sitting in damp clothes, the journey back to the Delfin – our floating home for the week – seemed longer. Night closed in quickly, shadows crowding the banks like wraiths, the pale trunks of the cecropia trees transformed into skeletal fingers clutching the purpling sky.

Suddenly, the boat’s engine spluttered and died. We looked at each other anxiously. The Amazon’s flooded forest forms a maze of neverending channels within which you could get lost for a very long time.

Glowing eyes

Oblivious to our concern, Ado, who grew up on the river, was leaning precariously over the prow of our skiff, shining a powerful torch into the dense fringe of water lettuce and water hyacinth bobbing at the river’s edge. Suddenly, we saw what he was looking at – a pair of eyes glowed red in the beam.

As the boat eased forward into the greenery, Ado wielded the torch like a pro to dazzle whatever it was until he was close enough to lunge. Then, turning with a grin, he triumphantly hoisted aloft a baby caiman!

A quartet of crocs

 The Amazon’s tributaries are home to four species of caiman – the black, white-bellied or spectacled, dwarf and smooth-fronted. The black is the largest and most aggressive, but the more abundant spectacled caiman grows to a respectable 2.5m.

At just a metre long, this was a mere tiddler, dangling motionless and unblinking from Ado’s hand.

Perhaps misinterpreting the dumbstruck expressions on my companions’ faces, our guide flicked the croc’s tail at them encouragingly. They reared back in their seats looking faintly horrified, so I figured that the interactive part of this trip was down to me and, holding out my hands, rescued the poor mite from Ado’s throttling grasp.

As I stroked its soft and surprisingly warm skin, the tiny caiman showed his fighting spirit and appreciation for my altruism by peeing down my still-damp leg.

The rest of the Amazon’s wildlife proved equally challenging, conspiring with the great river and the forest to conceal itself from our eager eyes. We soon realised that this land does not yield its secrets lightly to visitors. You have to earn them by learning what to look for and how to look for it. And, over the week we spent on the Delfin, we had a crash course.

Lessons in fieldcraft

The first thing we learned was where to look. Perhaps surprisingly, the Amazon river itself is not the place to see wildlife. Its wide, flat expanse of chocolate-coloured water (so vast it is sometimes called the River Sea) hides a fierce current that sweeps most creatures away, so we began our search in the quiet backwaters, creeks, lagoons and swamps. Here, the seasonal rise and fall of the water drowns the trees, providing excellent foraging for aquatic wildlife and safe roosts for birds and monkeys.

Next up was how to read the forest. From the river, the trees lining the banks form an impenetrable wall of green, broken only by the pale trunks of kapok and cecropia trees and the fragrant white chandeliers of mimosa blossom.

You have to train your eyes to seek out the spaces between their branches to discover what they hide. A swaying bough may be the only clue to the presence of a foraging monk saki or squirrel monkey.

Even brightly coloured birds, such as macaws and toucans, can appear dull in the deep shade, making them tricky to spot, while morpho butterflies rest unseen on tree trunks right in front of you, their mottled brown underwings camouflaging them perfectly until put to flight, when their cerulean blue upperwings shine in even the dimmest light.

Invisibility cloak

Iguanas masquerade as branches, basking high in waterside trees like reptilian gargoyles, whip-like tails dangling. Spotting these large lizards requires keen eyes and quick reactions. We were startled when one leapt from a great height into the river beside our boat, but Ado assured us that they are good swimmers and often use this strategy to escape predators.

Even sloths – those paragons of unmoving stolidity – somehow manage to hide in plain view. Every morning, they perch high in the bare, upper branches of their own favourite tree – usually a cecropia or kapok – waiting for the sun’s first rays to warm away the night’s chill. But their curled posture and algae-tinged fur make them surprisingly hard for novices to spot.

We came across no fewer than four sloths during our daily skiff excursions, but would have passed them all by without Ado’s sharp eyes.

One day, as he pointed out a green-brown blob high up in a tree, we could both tell that my companions were sceptical. But by imitating the shriek of a harpy eagle – the sloth’s only predator – Ado persuaded the ball to unfurl into a sloth. The creature lifted its head, short-sightedly seeking the source of the threat, but when no raptor raced out of the sky, its chin sank back onto its chest and it promptly dozed off again. That’s enough excitement for one day!

Eyes, ears and noses

Our final lesson was that, in the Amazon, simply looking is not enough – you must use all of your senses. Listen for the braying of Peru’s largest and most ungainly birds – horned screamers – which you usually hear before you see (they’re not called ‘donkey birds’ for nothing).

And follow your nose. The smell of dung may reveal the presence of one of the Amazon’s most peculiar avian residents – the hoatzin.

This extraordinary creature has a digestive system that is unique among birds. It feeds almost exclusively on leaves, which are ground into a large ball and then fermented in its oversized crop. The aromatic compounds in the leaves and bacterial fermentation give the hoatzin an odour like manure, hence its local name ‘stink bird’.

Join the initiated

 A week in the Amazon was not enough to uncover all of its many mysteries, but the skills we learned gave us a privileged glimpse into this magical kingdom and its strange and beguiling inhabitants. And if you (understandably) don’t feel like swimming with piranhas, don’t worry. Simply grab a stick and some shreds of beef, and you can go fishing for them instead. Ado tells me they’re very tasty.

SOPHIE'S TOP SPECIES TO SEE

Pink river dolphin

  • ID: A stout pink or grey cetacean with tiny eyes and poor eyesight. Can be hard to see as it reveals little of itself when surfacing from the river to breathe. Usually found in small groups.

  • Where: At river junctions, where fish flow from lagoons into the main river, and in flooded forests, where it uses sonar to navigate in the cloudy water. Flexible vertebrae enable it to weave between submerged tree trunks and squeeze in and out of tight spaces.

Hoatzin

  • ID: A large bird with a bare blue face, spiky crest and russet wings. Always in groups. Eighty per cent of its diet is shoots and leaves, which are swallowed and ground into a bolus in its large crop. Here, the bolus ferments and is digested, giving the bird an unpleasant odour resembling cow manure.

  • Where: Usually perched low in trees over still or slow-moving water, such as oxbow lakes, lagoons and sluggish rivers.

Three-toed sloth

  • ID: About the size of a small dog, with a stumpy tail and three claws on each of its four feet. Only active sporadically during the day and night. Feeds almost exclusively on leaves, and has a multi-chambered stomach to ferment tough vegetable matter.

  • Where: Individuals rarely move from the upper branches of their favourite trees – mostly cecropias or kapoks. So they can usually be found where these trees grow.

Caiman

  • ID: The four species of caiman – black, white- bellied, smooth-fronted and dwarf – can be hard to spot during the day, when they leave the water and climb onto partially submerged tree trunks to bask.

  • Where: Look for them lurking in the water lettuce along the edges of smaller rivers, in creeks and lagoons, waiting for frogs, dragonflies and small fish. The adults hunt bigger prey such as peccaries, paca and large fish.

Morpho butterfly

  • ID: One of the world’s largest butterflies with a wingspan of up to 20cm. Rests with its wings folded, the mottled brown undersides making it invisible to predators and tourists alike. The upperwings of both sexes are a gorgeous iridescent blue, though the males can appear brighter, and are only glimpsed in wafting flight.

  • Where: Adults spend most of their time on low shrubs, close to the forest floor. Look for them in wooded clearings and along small tributaries.]

ESSENTIAL TRAVEL INFORMATION

Getting there

  • Sophie travelled to Peru with Cox & Kings on its tailor-made Delfin Amazon cruise, flying from London Heathrow to Lima via Amsterdam with KLM and up to Iquitos with Lan Peru. 

  • Other tour operators include Orient Express; Audley; and Journey Latin America.

  • Flights are also provided by Iberia and Continental Airlines.

  • Return flights emitted 7,880kg of carbon dioxide and cost €183 to offset: click here.

The Delfin

  • Measuring 20m x 6m, the Delfin is owned and run by Lissy Urteaga and her husband. It has six air-conditioned cabins with ensuite shower rooms (and hot water) and an open sundeck. They have recently acquired a new boat – Delfin II – with 14 suites. 

When to go

  • When the waters are high from May to August, you can take skiffs under the forest canopy; at other times, when waters are low, you can hike on jungle trails.

Useful things to know

  • Delfin cuisine includes fresh fish, chicken and beef, potato, rice and fresh fruit. You must try Peru’s flagship dish – cebiche (made with raw diced fish or shellfish, raw onions, sweet potato and corn) – and drink a pisco sour (made with pisco brandy, lemon juice, the white of an egg and sugar). 

  • Peru is hot and humid with an average temperature of 27.5˚C, so take light, cool, casual clothing, a lightweight waterproof and sun protection. Always carry bottled water and don’t forget your binoculars – the wildlife rarely comes close.

  • Mosquitoes and biting bugs are not a problem, but you will still need insect repellent, which also deters ticks. And don’t forget your anti-malarials.

  • You can change sterling to Peruvian soles at the airport, but America dollars are also widely accepted.

  • For more information about Peru, click here.

Further reading

  • Birds of Peru (Helm Field Guides), £29.99, code W1109/17

  • A Neotropical Companion (2nd ed) by J Kricher, Princeton, £24.95, code W1109/18

  • Peru (Lonely Planet), £14.99, code W1109/19. Order on p88, quoting relevant code.

 

Find out more about Sophie and the team here.