Swimming with Dolphins in the Amazon (Brazil)

It was Sunday, late afternoon. The weekend vacationers from Manaus had returned home and peace reigned once more over the small tourist town of Novo Airão. I was the only one to go swimming with dolphins – what a stroke of luck.

I met Marisa who gave me a few instructions, “Stand on the platform in the water; don’t go deeper into the water. Let the dolphin approach you and don’t try to hold on to it. The welfare of the dolphins comes first.”

Even before my toes hit the water a boto-cor-de-rosa made its presence known: its head emerged through the water surface and with its shiny, tiny eyes and its wide mouth partly open, I’d swear it was smiling at me, welcoming me (even though I knew that a dolphin’s ‘smile’ is anatomically fixed, not an expression of emotion).

When, not much later, I stood in the water and caressed the dolphin as it came and went, pressing its body against my legs, Marisa sat down and put a bucket with fish next to her.

It was feeding time.

Dolphins in the Amazon

Here, in the Rio Preto (Black River), a tributary of the Amazon River, are two types of dolphins: the sotalias, or gray-colored dolphins (boto-cinza) and the Amazon River dolphins (Inia geoffrensis), which in Brazil are called boto-cor-de-rosa (pink dolphins), or simply botos.

The features of the sotalia reminded me of saltwater dolphins. They are fun to watch when jumping out of the water, however, they don’t like being close to people.

The Amazon River dolphin, with its characteristically long snout, doesn’t jump as spectacularly as the sotalia. It comes to the surface to breathe, and breaches like whales do. They are also much more approachable for humans.

Feeding Dolphins

Years ago, the wooden cabin where I changed into a swimsuit and read some explanatory panels on these dolphins, was a floating restaurant. At the end of the day leftovers were thrown into the water and one day the owner noticed dolphins eating the food.

The restaurant quickly turned into a tourist attraction to feed animals. Visitors could buy food from the restaurant and feed it to the mammals themselves.

Protests arose among wildlife conservationists. The dolphins were growing fat and it was feared the animals would become increasingly dependent on being fed. Furthermore, the fish were not hygienically handled, increasing the chance of sick dolphins. ICMBIO, a Brazilian organization in charge of protecting the country’s flora and fauna, prohibited the practice but did offer an alternative, whereby the dolphin would come first instead of the visitor.

Responsible Practice of Swimming with Dolphins

Visitors can no longer do whatever they want. A staff member supervises the swimming with dolphins, the quantity of fish daily fed to the dolphins is restricted and checked for quality (hygiene).

As Marisa fed ‘my’ dolphin, I watched and meanwhile continue caressing the some nine-foot-long mammal as it swam around me. Its skin felt soft as rubber and it was easy to follow its movements as the water was black yet transparent.

There was only one dolphin, but sometimes there were up to ten, Marisa told me. The snout kept appearing from the water, begging for another piece of that delicious fish. As I was the only visitor Marisa handed me a couple of fishes and allowed me to feed them to the dolphin.We play a bit, with me holding on to the fish and the dolphin pulling away. Of

We played a bit, with me holding on to the fish and the dolphin pulling away. Of course, it won, and the playing together made me smile and I felt incredibly fortunate to be here.

The Balance

The Amazon River dolphins are an endangered species due to deforestation and commercialization of the Amazon basin. Understandably, they are a large attraction for tourists and thus have created a source of income for many locals who take tourists out on boats to watch the animals. It is not all that easy to find the proper balance between conserving the environment and man’s need to make a living.

I fed the last fish to my dolphin and whispered to it, thanking it for its presence. As I hoisted myself out of the water and got dressed again, I conclude that here in Novo Airão, with ICMBIO’s supervision, they seemed to have managed quite well in finding that balance.

Practical Information

  • Novo Airão lies some 180 kilometers northwest of Manaus, in the Brazilian Amazon. It is connected with an asphalt road and easy to reach by bus or (rental) car. Novo Airão has various types of accommodation and restaurants, plus a couple of souvenir shops well worth a visit for the locally produced art.
  • Around Manaus there are more places to go swimming with dolphins. A local will take you out in a boat to a place where dolphins gather and let you swim there. Do inquire if the agency/guide is under the supervision of ICMBIO to assure the welfare of the dolphin comes first.

Additional Reading

All photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow him on Instagram here and here.

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