Swimming with Dolphins in Brazil’s Amazon

Hi there, it’s feeding time, remember? (©Coen Wubbels)

It’s Sunday, late afternoon. The weekend vacationers from Manaus have returned home and peace reigns once more over the small tourist town of Novo Airão. As a result I am the only one to go swimming with dolphins – what a stroke of luck.

I meet Marisa and she gives 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.”

The transparent water makes it easy to follow the dolphin’s movements (©Coen Wubbels)

Even before my toes hit the water a boto-cor-de-rosa makes its presence known: its head emerges through the water surface and with its shiny, tiny eyes and its wide mouth partly open I’d swear it is smiling at me, welcoming me (even though I know full well that a dolphin’s “smile” is anatomically fixed, not an expression of emotion). When, not much later, I stand in the water and caress the dolphin as it comes and goes, pressing its body against my legs, Marisa sits down and puts a bucket with fish next to her. It’s feeding time.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You want to feed and feel dolphins – what’s there not to like about that?
  • It is one of the easiest ways to come into contact with dolphins.
  • It is an opportunity to see the endangered Amazon River dolphin.
  • Good for anybody who loves animals.

Dolphins in Brazil’s Amazon

Peace and quiet along the Rio Preto (©Coen Wubbels)

Here, in the Rio Preto (Black River), a tributary of the Amazon River, are two types of dolphins: the sotalias, or grey-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 remind 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.

From a Restaurant to Dolphin Swimming

Years ago, the wooden cabin where I changed into 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 the presence of dolphins, which came to eat the food. The restaurant quickly turned into a tourist attraction to feed dolphins. 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 that 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

Is it asking for a kiss or another fish? (©Coen Wubbels)

Visitors can no longer do whatever they want. A staff member always supervises the swimming with dolphins, the quantity of fish daily fed to the dolphins is restricted and checked for quality (hygiene). Visitors can no longer feed the dolphins, this is done by staff members. As Marisa feeds ‘my’ dolphin, I can watch and meanwhile continue caressing the some nine-foot-long mammal as it swims around me. Its skin feels soft as rubber and it’s easy to follow its movements as the water is black yet transparent.

Today there is only one dolphin, but sometimes there are up to ten, Marisa tells me. The snout keeps appearing from the water, begging for another piece of that delicious fish. As I am the only visitor Marisa hands me a couple of fishes and allows me to feed them to the dolphin. We play a bit, with me holding on to the fish and the dolphin pulling away. Of course it wins, and the playing together makes me smile and feeling incredibly fortunate to be here.

The Balance Between Economy and Preservation of Wildlife

Yep, I like that – give it to me! (©Coen Wubbels)

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 as a result have created a source of income for many locals who take tourists out in boats to watch the animals. It’s not all that easy to find the proper balance between conserving the environment and man’s need to make a living.

I feed the last fish to my dolphin and whisper to it, thanking it for its presence. As I hoist myself out of the water and get dressed again I conclude that here in Novo Airão, with ICMBIO’s supervision, they seem 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. However, note that Novo Airão is the only place under supervision of ICMBIO, where the welfare of the dolphin comes first.
  • Open 7 days a week; feeding times are between 8am and 5 pm. Quiet times are during the week. Expect lots of visitors during holidays and vacations (Dec 15 – Feb 15).
  • Address Avenida Antenor Carlos Frederico, Novo Airão.

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