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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pink Dolphins

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood talks with author Sy Montgomery about her search for the elusive pink dolphins of the Amazon River. Ms. Montgomery relates some of the local legends about the dolphins and tells tales of her own discoveries in her new book, Journey of the Pink Dolphins.


CURWOOD: Deep inside the waters of the Amazon rainforest lives a large pink creature that local residents call the boto. Legend has it that botos can turn into people, seduce them, and carry them away to another world beneath the water. In English, botos are known as pink dolphins. If pink dolphins don't actually capture people, they certainly can capture people's imaginations. One person who fell under the spell of these unique freshwater dolphins is writer and Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery. After four trips to the Amazon, Sy penned her latest book, Journey of the Pink Dolphins. It weaves together legend, science, and her own experience. The book begins with the story of a first encounter.

MONTGOMERY: The river is the looking glass into another world. The river people speak of the Encant, an enchanted city beneath the water, ruled by beings they call Encantados. Those who visit never want to leave because everything is more beautiful there. If you stop and wait in your canoe, that's when the Encantados will come. At first you may feel a sizzle of bubbles rising beneath the craft, and a fusion of pearls cast up from below like a net of enchantment. If the night is moonless, you will know only their breath. But if the moon is full, you may see a form rising from the water, gathering into the shape of a dolphin. Inches from your canoe a face may break the surface. The forehead is clearly defined like a person's. The long beak sticks out like a nose. The skin is delicate like ours. Sometimes it's grayish or white. And sometimes dazzlingly, impossibly pink. And the creature turns its neck and looks at you, and opening the top of its head, gasps, "Cha!"

CURWOOD: Over the years I've known you, Sy, you haven't been shy about going to kind of dangerous and risky and offbeat places.

MONTGOMERY: (Laughs) Well, neither are you, Steve.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) I recall you went out looking for people-eating tigers at one point.

MONTGOMERY: Yes. (Laughs)

CURWOOD: Why did you go looking for pink dolphins? What's the attraction?

MONTGOMERY: Well, I'd always wanted to go to the Amazon. It's this huge, oceanic world that stands for so much in our imagination. But it was so huge and so unfathomable that to go there without a guide, I thought, would be futile. And when I learned that there are dolphins in the Amazon, I knew that dolphins have guided people for millennia. It's said that legends older than the Minoans tell us that dolphins led the ancients to the center of the Earth. So when I heard about these dolphins, I thought now I have found my guide. And they alone can fathom the unfathomable depths of the flooded forest and the Amazon.

CURWOOD: Now, dolphins, we think of them mostly being in the sea. So this is an adaptation for them to come up this massive river.

MONTGOMERY: Right. Most people think of dolphins as the 36 species of marine dolphins, like Flipper was. But these guys, these pink dolphins in the Amazon, are from an entirely different whale lineage than are the modern group of marine dolphins. These dolphins are thought to have entered the Amazon 15 million years ago, and not from the Atlantic but from the Pacific, before the Andes raised.

CURWOOD: Why do biologists tell us that we have pink dolphins?

MONTGOMERY: Well, no one's exactly sure why they're pink, and this is one of the many mysteries about this animal. People do agree that they tend to glow pinker with exertion, so this makes it particularly difficult to watch them, because they're changing color like chameleons right before your eyes.

CURWOOD: How are the pink dolphins doing?

MONTGOMERY: Well, the Amazon's a vast place, as you know. The river itself is 4,000 miles long and its jungle covers 2.5 million square miles, an area the size of the face of the full moon. It's a big, big place, and the dolphins are common in this very big place. They're not endangered, but they are locally endangered, because wherever the Amazon is being logged, wherever the Amazon is being polluted by oil exploration or by mercury from gold mining, wherever the forest is on fire to make room for cattle who don't belong there, the dolphins are endangered. So, the threats to the dolphin's world are very, very real.

CURWOOD: How do the people there express their relationship with the pink dolphins?

MONTGOMERY: Mostly it's through these stories. The fourth expedition I went on, where I finally was able to swim with them, I met a Boari Indian woman named Nekka, who was so afraid of her people losing their connection with the land, and she was gathering the old stories and putting them into dance. One of the most amazing things that happened to me was my very last day of my fourth expedition. Nekka had a surprise for me, and she and her daughter and her daughter's friends organized a dance for me. And all these beautiful young men and women brought their costumes, brought their props. And we all sat on the shore, and at sunset they danced for me, and sang for me the story of the beautiful woman who goes to bathe in the river, and a dolphin sees her there and falls in love with her. But of course, in the morning, he's gone. He's gone back into the water, and the woman is so distressed. So she asks the moon to call to the dolphin. So the moon calls the dolphin, and he appears at the next full moon night when there is a dance, and he makes her the promise that although he is a dolphin and can only appear in human form during these special times, that he will always come to her. And the two lovers, the story says, ever after did honor their promise and met at every dance. And it's Nekka's hope, this Boari Indian woman's hope, that her people will remember to honor the promises that they have between themselves and the dolphins, and the other creatures in the rivers, and the forest as well. Because it's her contention that their strength and their own beauty comes from the magic of the Amazon that they keep alive in their legends.

CURWOOD: Sy Montgomery's new book is called Journey of the Pink Dolphins: An Amazon Quest. Thanks so much for taking this time, Sy.

MONTGOMERY: Thank you, Steve.



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