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Marine life

Dolphins, manatees & whales

On many rivers in the Amazon Basin you should catch glimpses of the pink dolphin. One of the world’s five freshwater cetaceans, it lives only in the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers and their tributaries – and it really is pink! It’s most often seen where tributaries meet larger rivers, and is most active in the early morning and late afternoon. Sightings are tantalizing – and getting good photos virtually impossible – as the dolphin surfaces unpredictably, for just a second or so at a time, to breathe. Often it won’t even lift its head above the surface. The pink dolphin has a lumpy forehead, a long beak, no dorsal fin (just a ridge) and tiny eyes – it’s almost blind but has a highly evolved sonar system. Adults are 1.8m to 2.5m long, weighing 85kg to 160kg.

Amazonian rivers are also home to the gray dolphin, a bit smaller than the pink and often found together with it. Unlike the pink dolphin, the gray also inhabits the sea, in coastal waters from Florianópolis to Panama. When it surfaces it usually lifts its head and part of its body out of the water.

The Fernando de Noronha archipelago, off Natal in Northeast Brazil, is a good site for observing large groups of the spinner dolphin, a small marine dolphin less than 1.8m long. They gather by the hundreds in the bays at sunrise and playfully swim around the bows of tour boats.

Larger than the dolphins is the Amazon manatee, a slow-moving vegetarian that is illegally hunted for its meat by riverbank dwellers and consequently is in danger of extinction. Prospects are even poorer for the marine West Indian manatee, of which there are just 500 left in coastal waters from the state of Alagoas northward.

Seven whale species occur off Brazil’s coasts. The country’s first dedicated whale sanctuary, Praia do Rosa, was declared along 130km of the Santa Catarina coast in 2000, to protect the southern right whale, once the abundant raw material of a Brazilian whaling industry but now down to a world population of about 5000. Mothers and calves can be seen from beautiful Praia do Rosa beach between June and October.

Another rare whale, the humpback whale, breeds in the same months in the Parque Nacional Marinho de Abrolhos, off the coast of southern Bahia.

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Five of the world’s seven species of sea turtle are found along Brazil’s coasts and are all under effective official protection, though still endangered or vulnerable. The Tamar Project, founded in 1980, does an impressive job of protecting turtle-nesting beaches from Santa Catarina state to Ceará, and spreading environmental awareness at the same time. Brazil is also home to several species of river turtle, spread throughout the country and mostly not endangered.

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Amazonia is home to at least 2000 freshwater fish species, and the Pantanal to around 300 species.

The king of Amazonian fish is the beautiful and enormous pirarucu or arapaima, which can grow to 3m long and weigh well over 100kg. Its red and silvery-brown scale patterns are reminiscent of Chinese paintings. The pirarucu is a voracious hunter of other fish, and a rich food source for humans. To try to preserve the shrinking population, catching it is banned if it’s less than 1.5m in length or during the October-to-March spawning season. It’s a member of the primitive Osteoglossiformes order, characterized by a bony tongue and rear fins that almost join the tail. Unusually, the male protects the young for up to the first six months of their lives. Another Amazonian Osteoglossiform, also with good meat, is the aruanã. Up to 1m long, it can leap 2m into the air to grab fruit or catch insects.

The most important food fish of central Amazonia is the little jaraqui, which swims in shoals of thousands. Another food fish, the tambaqui, is of the same family (Serrasalmidae) as piranhas. The rotund tambaqui can reach 1m in length and weigh up to 25kg. Normally it lives on nuts (which it can crack with its jaws) and seeds, but when the waters recede it can turn carnivorous.

Amazonia harbors at least 100 species of catfish, named for the long bristles that help them search for food on river bottoms. One aggressive catfish, the piraíba, grows up to 3m long and weighs as much as 200kg. It will even attack water birds. The dourado, up to 1m long with pale-gold sides, is common in the Pantanal as well as Amazonia, and is a popular dish in restaurants throughout the country. The piramutubalays its eggs in the upper Rio Solimões, then descends in big shoals to mature at the mouth of the Amazon. It can grow to more than 1m long and is heavily fished.

You will hear about the infamous candiru in Amazonia. There are many species of these small catfish, most of them pretty obnoxious. The really infamous type is one of the Vandellia genus, about 5cm long. This little charmer normally lives inside the gills of other fish to suck their blood, but is attracted to urine and reputedly able to wriggle up humans’ urinary tracts, where it lodges itself with sharp spines and can only be removed by surgery. The belief that it can actually swim up a stream of urine to get inside you is almost certainly false, but it’s probably not a good idea to urinate in Amazonian waters just the same. Locals wear clothing to exclude the candiru in areas where it’s known.

Other best-avoided inhabitants of Brazilian freshwaters include the stingray (arraia in Portuguese) and the electric eel (Portuguese: poraquê). The stingray lives on river floors and can inflict deep, painful cuts with the barbs in its tail. The electric eel, growing up to 2.75m long, is capable of a 600-volt discharge to stun its prey and could potentially kill a human with a volley of electric pulses.

Much sought after in Amazonia, both for its delicious taste and its famous fighting qualities as a sport fish, is the peacock bass (Portuguese: tucunaré). Growing to 50cm or more, it has a peacocklike ‘eye’ spot on its tail. Also sought – for home aquariums the world over – are the tiny but brightly colored tetra fishes. These come from the murky igapós (flooded Amazon forests), where they would doubtless go unseen if more demurely pigmented.

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