In the days before I was an author, I used to make my living messing with these things.
Occasionally, the work brought me to some pretty remote places.
One time, flying from one fairly inaccessible point to another in Northern Brazil, I spotted an isolated fishing village on the banks of the Tocantins River. No roads anywhere in sight; jungle all around; no way in or out, except by water.
Or by helicopter.
And, as it happened, we were sitting in one.
We circled the place for a better look. People looked up and waved. We waved back. Overtaken by curiosity about what kind of life they lived down there, and not wanting to miss a chance to find out, I instructed the pilot to land.
We let some of the kids sit in the aircraft, shot a little video, showed them the images.
They wanted to reciprocate, show us something as well.
So one of the kids stepped ankle-deep into the water, started clapping his hands and a pink face appeared out of the brown water.
It was my first sight of a boto cor de rosa, the name Brazilians give to their pink river dolphins.
This one, and the rest of his little family of four, was a friend of all the kids in the village.
I say he, because, as I later found out, only the males are pink. They tend to be smaller than the females, which are mostly gray and can grow to be as long as 2.5 meters (8.2 feet).
These sociable creatures are curious and playful – and they’re smart, with a brain about 40% bigger than that of the average person.
Male dolphins get pinker when they’re excited or surprised, a reaction akin to the blushing of human beings – although for entirely different reasons. And they get pinker still during the mating season, because it’s the pinkest of them the females are attracted to.
The dolphins figure prominently in the mythology of the region, with the legends varying from tributary to another.
But, in other places, the legends are darker.
The pink dolphins are thought to be unpredictable wizards who, long ago, were human beings.
To some, the boto turns into a handsome young man at night – and impregnates the wives and daughters of the village before returning to the water again. It’s been suggested that the myth arose partly because dolphin genitalia bear a resemblance to those of humans. Others believe the myth served (and still serves) as a way of hiding the incestuous relations which are quite common in the isolated communities of the region.
Another legend states that if a person makes eye contact with a river dolphin, he or she will have lifelong nightmares.
I can attest to the fact that it’s not true. Because, I did – and I don’t.
On the whole, unfortunately, the bad stories outweigh the good – and hundreds, if not thousands, of the poor creatures are killed each year by jealous boyfriends and husbands – and by fisherman who know that they serve as excellent bait for catfish – the cash crop of the Amazon basin.
Killing a boto is illegal and carries a penalty of up to four years in jail, but the people charged with enforcing the ban (the IBAMA – the Brazilian Environmental Protection Agency) have only 1,300 agents to patrol the entire country.
And, although the boto’s habitat, shown on the map above, is only a small part of Brazil, it’s still an area larger than India.
Leighton - Monday