By Steven Nelson
May 7, 2012

One of the most rewarding activities that you can do in Brazil is to swim with dolphins. Getting so close to such wonderful, friendly aquatic life is a special moment for those who take part, and usually one of the most memorable moments of even the longest visit to Brazil.

There are two main possibilities and very different in every way they are too. The first and perhaps the best known is in the Amazon area around Manaus. The Amazon River System is full of freshwater dolphins (full of many things really, including manatees, peacock bass, pacu and dourado as well) which can be seen surfacing at regular points from any Amazon batelao, igarit or gaiola traversing the waterways from Belem to Tabatinga, Boa Vista or Porto Velho.

Being sociable creatures, the dolphins (known locally as the boto, which is a sub-species of dolphin rather than the genus golfinho) tend to travel in family groups with a couple of youngsters swimming with the parents. The females can grow up to 8ft/2.5m long although usually they come in around the same average length as a human, although slightly heavier. These botos do look strikingly different to the dolphins beloved of marine park crowds, with their narrow beaks and bulbous foreheads. The beaks have evolved to find food amongst the narrow gaps between roots and vegetation of the Amazon riverbanks and the igarapé creeks of the flooded forests. One interesting fact about them that can be noticed while they feed is that their vertebrae do not fuse, allowing them to rotate their flexible necks through 180 degrees. They are also very different in colour to other dolphins at times – some of the Amazon River Dolphins are pink. Some are a more usual grey colour, others still a mixture of grey and pink.

In a couple of areas close to Manaus, the Amazon River Dolphins have become accustomed to human contact, and seem to enjoy spending time with their two-legged friends. Of course, this is in no small way down to the fact that they receive fish for their time and trouble, but they have also been known to stay around and play for hours with visitors, even when the fish have long been fed to them. As long as the occasion is supervised by a local wildlife expert, the pure joy of a close encounter with the largest freshwater cetacean in the beautiful surroundings of the Amazon Rainforest could stay with you for a long time.

Of course, not everyone agrees with the visitors and seemingly the friendly dolphins themselves (‘friendly’ as long as you are not fish or crustacean of course) that these kind of visits are beneficial for both sides. This type of semi-captive feeding colony may well bring the dolphins too close to humankind and too accustomed to contact, when not all humans would be so delighted to meet them. The Amazon River Dolphin is listed as an endangered species, with polluted waterways, diminished habitat, fishing and general river traffic in the Amazon area all affecting their population. Amazon folklore tells of the dolphins as mythical creatures, the killing of which brings bad luck. They are also thought to turn into attractive men at night, and impregnate local girls before returning to the river!

Perhaps swimming with Amazon River Dolphins will encourage more care to be taken with them and more conservation projects throughout the whole Amazon River system. While visitors to the Amazon can swim with the local dolphins, the local people have more chance to find work helping this to happen and (similar to the Projeto TAMAR sea-turtle work along the Brazilian coast) this will lead to an increased conscientiousness with regards to this unique creature and its environment. If this were possible, then a swim with an Amazon River Dolphin could be as rewarding for the dolphin population as it is for their humans friends.

Activity Information: Swimming with Amazon River Dolphins is best done as part of a visit to an Amazon Lodge along the shores of the river. The easiest ones to visit are within an hour or three boat or boat and road journey from Manaus. Reputable lodges always include local expert guides with their trips to see the dolphins.

You can visit Steve’s blog at Great Things To Do In Brazil: Favela Tour
Around Brazil: Tandem Hang-Gliding in Rio de Janeiro
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Around Brazil: The Rio de Janeiro Marathon
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Can’t make this up