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Amazon: Swimming with river dolphins

In the brown waters of the mighty Amazon, fresh water river dolphins are under threat. Don a snorkelling mask and jump in for a swim with these friendly creatures to help support local conservation efforts

Amazon: Swimming with river dolphins
River dolphins. Image: Getty

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Up until now, our flirtations had been fleeting. There’d been a few tantalising ripples on the surface, and the occasional short, sharp sneeze of expelled air, followed by a glimpse of that barely-pointed dorsal fin. But now, pulling on my snorkelling mask, I’m dressed for the full date. I carefully descend down a pair of slimy wooden steps into the brown waters of the mighty Amazon. I can feel the crowd’s anxious eyes on my back.

“Aren’t you afraid of going in the water?” they seemed to say. “There are piranhas and giant catfish down there!” But I’m fascinated, not scared. Ever since I’d seen the chubby pink cheeks of an Amazon river dolphin swim across my television screen five years ago, I’ve longed to meet one face to face.

Found only in fresh water, these cetaceans — known locally as boto — aren’t endangered, but they’re under threat in some areas. High up the Rio Solimões, thousands are being slaughtered because their rotting flesh is the ideal bait for piracatinga — a species of catfish gaining real popularity on Colombian plates.

“Is it responsible to swim with the dolphins?” I ask one of the biologists leading our trip.

“We can be pious about interaction with animals” he replies, “but we need to encourage interest in the species, so locals see the merit of protecting them; so they see that swimming with dolphins is more lucrative than killing them as fodder for catfish.”

So I dive into the Coca Cola-coloured river, eyes wide and scanning the murk. Fallen leaves are silhouetted against the surface. And then, poking through the tea-stained shadows, comes a long pale snout — like a ghostly finger pointing right at me. Then its bulbous melon forehead appears like a full moon, and a tiny glaucoma-clouded eye peers at me, before it flips onto its side, baring its salmon-pink stomach, and rubs against me; its skin silky smooth.

According to Amazonian folklore, Amazon river dolphins are encantados — or shape shifters — who morph into handsome young men that come ashore at night to seduce young women. It’s easy to dismiss the legend as fantasy, but I’m sure I caught a cheeky glint in that dolphin’s eye as he slid by.

Where to do it: The Amazon river dolphin is endemic to the Orinoco, Amazon and Araguaia rivers of the Amazon Basin, which includes Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. For responsible dolphin tours:
Brazil: Amazonia Expeditions.
Bolivia: Indigena Tours.
Peru: Maniti Camp Expeditions.
Colombia: Foundation Omacha welcomes conservation volunteers and can put travellers in touch with local fisherman who have been trained in conservation methods to visit the dolphins.

How do to it: Amazonia Expeditions offers the two-day Baré Route tour, which includes a jungle trek, canoe trip, interaction with the dolphins, meals and liveaboard boat from $370/£237 per cabin.

Read more in the December 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)