Saturday, March 18, 2017

Dolphins and Anacondas and Caiman, Oh My!

13 March 2017 - posted 18 March from Sint Maarten/Saint Martin

People we’ve become friends with on the ship had booked a tour out of Manaus, and told me there was room for a few more people.  So I made arrangements to go on this river cruise with them, and it turned out to be great! 

We climbed into the river cruiser, sort of a big metal canoe with an outboard engine and a canopy, and headed up the Rio Negro.  We passed under this huge bridge, which connects Manaus with the other side of the river – the bridge is 10 km (6 miles) long, and the river at this point is about 8 km wide (roughly 4.8 miles).  HUGE river, though smaller than the Amazon.  Our guide, Isaac, explained that the Rio Negro runs south from Colombia, and empties into the Amazon not far from Manaus.  The river is named Rio Negro, Black River, because the water is so dark from all the tannins – and the tannin comes from all the trees that fall into the river along its course.

He also explained that the river is high, so some islands are partially submerged, but that rainy season continues until June.  The Amazon can rise about 36 feet, or 12 meters, between dry season and rainy season – we’re about halfway right now.  And in 2012, the river was exceptionally high, flooding the first few roads by the banks in downtown Manaus!

We zoomed along the river, learning bits of trivia about the Amazon Basin, for maybe an hour.  (I’m not a good judge of time.)  And then we reached our first destination – the pink dolphins!

These are freshwater dolphins who live only in the Amazon Basin, so this was a treat.  The dolphins are born grey, and their pigment changes as they age, so that they turn pink.  In the pod of dolphins we saw, there was a small baby who was very grey; the others were lighter grey or mottled grey and pink, so I guess they weren’t very old, just mature and still changing colors.

This is one of those wild animal encounter places that at least is fairly humane about how things are handled.  The dolphins are NOT in an enclosure, but swim freely through the rivers and connecting lakes.  There are regulations that the businesses that have dolphin encounters can only be open a few days a week, so that the dolphins are not in contact with people every day.  There can only be a certain number of encounters per day, the number of people are regulated, and only a certain number of fish can be fed to the dolphins at each encounter.  Again, this minimizes the contact between people and dolphins, as well as ensures that the dolphins do not become dependent on humans for food, but are forced to continue hunting for fish on their own.

Of course, I have mixed feeling about this.  (I almost always have mixed feelings about things like this.)  And no, I didn’t get in the water to be there when the dolphins were fed.  On the one hand, the animals are treated well and the industry is regulated.  Plus it gives us a way to definitely see the dolphins.  On the other hand, it does exploit the animals, forces them to interact with humans, and keeps them from being truly wild animals.

But it was really exciting to see them.  People stand on an underwater platform, or float in the water, while one employee feeds the dolphins.  I know that it looks like he’s pushing the dolphin away at times, but he’s trying to control which way the dolphin moves, to be sure the people don’t get injured.  The dolphins were pretty rambunctious, like giant puppies who don’t realize how strong they are.  The people were pushed around a bit as the dolphin vied for fish, which is one of the reasons I didn’t hop in the water.

There were other dolphins who continued to swim around farther out in the river, and the “handler” would occasionally throw a fish out to them.  A few of these seemed to be pinker than others, so I’m guessing they were a bit older. 

As other groups came up to see the dolphins, the first groups were ushered out.  We motored up river a bit, and I noticed some thatched buildings that were painted with geometric designs.  This turned out to be our next stop, an indigenous village.  This was less touristy than our visit to Boca da Valeria, but still a little bit contrived.

These people were from two families, and the rest of their nation or tribe lived on a reservation about 400 miles away.  (“Reservation” is the word our guide used.  Not sure how similar it is to the US Native American reservations.)

But these two families have chosen to live here and have this tiny village to show visitors how they live – and they earn money from the tour companies who pay for the group visits. 

We were ushered into one of the big buildings, which seemed to be specifically for meetings and performances.  The men entered wearing headdresses of macaw feathers, necklaces of caiman teeth, and loincloths (with briefs underneath, so not totally traditional).  They had different geometric designs painted on their faces, as did the women who entered a few minutes later.  The women wore grass skirts; they all had strands of colored feathers woven in their hair, which provided some coverage for their upper bodies.

One man made speech in Portuguese, which was translated by our guide Isaac.  We were welcomed to the village, and the people performed their welcome dance.  This is the dance they perform before they traditionally drink an herbal concoction that is hallucinogenic, and then they dance for about twenty-four hours.  At least, that’s what we were told. 

But since this was just a performance for us, we were then shown the farewell dance, which included us each being brought out to join in.  I had a cute young guy come take me into the dance – it was just a few steps forward, a few steps back, repeat – but while stepping back and forth, we were also moving in a spiral so we were getting closer and closer to the people opposite us. 

The music was provided by a young boy, maybe about ten years old, on a drum.  And there were a few toddlers wandering around, just watching everyone. 

We then had the opportunity to eat fried ants (I passed), and manioc flour (which I tried).  There were also items for purchase, and I thought about the feather ornaments – but, while pretty, they weren’t really my style. 

We climbed back into our boat, and cruised along, though I really am not sure which direction we were heading.  Up river, down river, it all kind of looks the same.  Past floating houses that accommodate the changing water levels, past trees underwater, passing the occasional boat and kicking up plenty of splash.  And trees with darkened trunks all showing last year's high water mark.

The whole Amazon Basin is a network of connecting rivers, lakes, streams, and waterways of varying sizes.  Some are navigable, others not.  At times we’d veer off into wooded areas, so that it felt like we were motoring through the jungle.  It was much like the billabongs and rivers of Australia, where the rivers would spread out into lakes and then continue out the opposite side, in a never-ending web of water.

We saw several squirrel monkeys, tiny monkeys sort of a light brownish grey with huge dark eyes.  One scampered up a tree, then paused to look right at me as if see what it was running from – and then continued on his way.  We also saw a family of capuchin monkeys jumping around the treetops.  Monkeys are in constant motion, so I never got a photo of them – but just cute.  Turns out there are 65 species of monkeys in the Amazon region, and we saw two of them.

Two red macaws flew by overhead, and the occasional small caiman would jump into the water too quickly to tell if they were really seen or not. 

Then more water lilies, those huge green leaf platters floating on the surface of the water, ringed by thorns.  I was finally able to get a decent photo of the flower in the center, tightly furled closed for the day, a lovely soft pink in the center of all that green. 

We continued on, and stopped at a floating building where a family offered knickknacks for sale, as well as an opportunity to pet (and pose with) an anaconda, a sloth, a caiman.  I told Isaac I was holding out for a jaguar, which he thought was funny.  I did pet the young sloth, who was very soft.  After people held him, he was put on the floor where he held onto the table leg, then spread out for a nap.  Really funny looking animals, with such a goofy grin on their faces.

Our lunch was at a floating restaurant, a buffet of umpteen salads, several kinds of side dishes, three kinds of fish, some beef, chicken, and fruit.  As we ate, the wind kicked up and the daily rain began, torrential rain obscuring our view of the other side of the river.  We had to wait a while for the rain to subside, because we’d all left our rain jackets in the boat, and the wind made rough waves in the river.  But we needed to head back so that we could make it to the cruise ship before it left, so we climbed aboard, wet and chilled.

The clear plastic side shades kept out much of the continuous rain, but you know how a motor boat kicks up wake and sometimes it splashes back into the boat?  I seemed to be sitting right at the row of maximum splash back.  Or back splash.  At any rate, I became soaked to the skin despite wearing a rain jacket.  Good thing I keep my camera in a zip-lock plastic bag!

We headed to the Meeting of the Waters to see where the Rio Negro meets with the Amazon, the black and brown waters not mixing for some 30 miles or so.  The waves and the rain made it not as easy to see as on a sunny day, but we could still see the two colors of water running side by side.

And then a quick trip back to the ship, where we got back for hot showers and dry clothes.

It really was a fun and event-filled day, totally interesting.  Quite the Amazon experience!

Now all I need is to meet my friendly jaguar or puma, and my Amazon time will be complete!

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