Thursday, December 23, 2010

Swimming in the Amazon

I hadn't planned to swim in the Amazon. I hadn't even intended to TOUCH the Amazon, because I was so scared of the bacteria and waterborne larvae that can penetrate your intact skin and give you horrible diseases. The Salt Lake County Health Department nurse who gave me my vaccinations described the diseases in vivid detail, and even gave me a prescription for antibiotics to take in case a drop of freshwater accidentally splashed on me.

But, once I was actually THERE, and saw that the resort offered an option to swim with pink river dolphins, I really wanted that experience. I carefully studied the 7-page health precautions report the nurse had given me, and learned that the highest freshwater disease risk was in Bahia, the first state I visited, rather than here in the Amazon. Since I'd already purchased the freshwater antibiotics and had them with me, I figured I could take them for good measure.

I reasoned that the Ariau Jungle Towers is a 5-star resort, with guests like Bill Gates staying there. Certainly they knew what they were doing and wouldn't put their guests at inappropriate risk.

So I changed my mind and decided to sign up to swim with the Amazon's pink river dolphins. One of the first questions the lodge asked in response was if I was having my menstrual period. The scent of blood, of course, attracts some of the larger dangers of the Amazon, like the river sharks and piranhas and caiman. I wasn't having my period, so I was good to go.

"I have another tour and won't be able to go swimming with you" Rui told me "but will send you with my friend Paulo. He doesn't speak English, but just do whatever he says, and you'll be fine."

Since I knew one of the other tourists I'd be swimming with spoke both Portuguese and English, I wasn't too worried about being able to follow directions, but the German man next to me who overheard our conversation laughed and asked "How is she supposed to follow directions she doesn't understand!?" So, Rui elaborated further:

"Just keep your hands below water the entire time, and you'll be fine. The dolphins can't see very well, so if your hands are outside the water, they might think you are a fish and bite you. But if you keep your hands below water, you won't get bit." I figured I could do that.

Because of a busy schedule that day, instead of meeting at the lodge, Paulo picked me up in his canoe at the end of my jungle hike. I'd carried my swimsuit in my pack during the hike, and so the first order of business was to stop here to change clothes:

This is where the dolphin expert man lives. We hopped off the canoe into a room where several young men were hanging out. I asked where I should change, and they pointed me to the kitchen at the rear of the house. Like a drunken sailor, I staggered over to the kitchen, not accustomed to walking on such a tilted floor. The kitchen was very unique, with old rusted appliances, but I was so focused on changing out of my sweaty clothes into my swimsuit that I didn't think to take a photo. Here's what the kitchen looks like from the outside, though.

The dolphin man loaded two buckets of fish into our canoe, and then we headed out into the main body of the Rio Negro.

We stopped here at this dock, which has steps leading to an underwater platform where you can stand waist deep in the river.

Once Sam, Abby, and I and our guide were standing on the platform, the guide began pulling fish out of his bucket and lobbing them out to the river. Soon, we heard the gasps of the dolphins as they surfaced for air, and saw their pink and gray heads and backs as they approached. The Amazon dolphins are gray when they are young, and turn pink as they mature.

They love the free fish, of course, and were soon gathered around us, allowing us to pet their soft neoprene-like skin and curiously poking their long snouts around us.

The guide started playing and teasing them, getting them to jump out of the water like this:

They came crashing down with a big splash, like this:

Just as we were beginning to feel comfortable in the water and with the dolphins, a large boat of tourists arrived at the dock, so they could transfer from the larger "Fe En Deus" (Faith in God) boat that brings you from Manuas to the smaller canoes that take you to the lodge. Here's what the two boats looked like on the day I arrived:

The thirty tourists were thrilled to see the pink river dolphins, so they all pulled out their cameras and clamored to get as many photos of the dolphins as possible. I hate being seen in a swimming suit, and so I tried hard not to think about the fact that now thirty people would have photos of me in my swimming suit.

Because of all the commotion, the dolphin man suggested we stop feeding the dolphins and just stand on the submerged deck in the water, waiting for the tourists to leave. So, we just hung out there, and the dolphins seemed to feel more and more comfortable with us, continuing to swim around.

At one point, Abby cried "Ouch! I just got bit!" She pulled her hand out of the water to show Sam and I the red mark on her first and middle finger where one of the dolphins had crunched her with his little teeth. Fortunately, the bite didn't draw blood. After that, she wasn't sure she wanted to stay in the water, but Sam kept trying to reassure her:
"Don't worry! They won't bite you!" he said.
"They just DID bite me!" she replied.
"Don't worry! They won't bite you AGAIN!" Sam tried, but that was little comfort to Abby, especially since she had followed the rule to keep her hands below water.

I didn't get bit, but there was something about me that the dolphins liked, and so they kept swimming up close to me, rubbing their bodies and fins against my legs, just like a cat would do to show its affection. Perhaps it was because I hadn't shaved my legs that day, and they liked having a rubbing post, or perhaps it was because I was sweaty from hiking in the jungle and they liked my scent, but they kept rubbing against me, but not against Sam or Abby. After a few minutes of that, I was overwhelmed by all that dolphin love, and had my back pressed up against the dock, having been pushed there by all their attention.

Most of the other tourists had left by then, so our guide fed the dolphins a few more fish and then indicated that it was now the other tourist's turn. So I climbed back up on the dock and enjoyed watching them have the experience. Here's a little video I took of them:

After they'd been in the water a minute or so, one of the girls cried out "Hey! Are those the pee fish!?" The "pee fish" she was referring to is the candiru--tiny little parasitic catfish that are attracted to urine and have even been known to swim up people's urinary tracts and lodge themselves there with their little spines. There were 20 or 30 of them surrounding the people, and their size and movement reminded me of swimming dragonflies.

The guide gave us the opportunity to swim after he finished with this second group of tourists, but after seeing the candiru, I really wasn't in the mood to swim!

By the following day, though, I'd forgotten all about the candiru, and so jumped in the water when Rui gave us the opportunity to swim at the dock for a few minutes while we were en route to a native village. We didn't have fish with us to attract the dolphins, so I didn't expect to see any, but after a minute or two of treading water, I was startled to realize that I had just kicked something that felt suspiciously like a dolphin. Sure enough, a dolphin surfaced next to me, and we had the opportunity to play with him a few minutes more. You can see him just below the surface of the water in this photo captured by Sabine.

Visiting the Amazon is the adventure of a lifetime, whether or not you swim in the river. Even though I hadn't planned to swim there, I was glad I did, and was grateful to make it through the experience safely.


Lori said...

Awesome!!! I love your adventures!!

Laurie said...

That gave me some good chuckles. Thanks for sharing...not surprising that the dolphins like you...they must be good judges of character.