Jeremy Wade has written on natural history and travel for publications including: BBC Wildlife, the Guardian, the Sunday Telegraph, Kew magazine, Fortean Times and The Field. He has also contributed to The Natural History Programme on BBC Radio 4.
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Published in BBC Wildlife (June 1996)

Jeremy Wade went back to Brazil determined to try to film the strange creature he had photographed the year before. But, though he searched stretches of the Amazon for weeks, the 'sawtooth dolphin', as he nicknamed it, was nowhere to be seen. Then there was a miracle.

Tales from the bush

Bubbles fizzed against the hull behind me. I whipped the lens through 180 degrees, all but unscrewing my neck, as the horizon rocked and 12 fathoms of water sucked at the tiny dugout's half-finger of freeboard.

Recently, a scattering of such sightings had worked wonders for my reflexes.. So when, a few heartbeats later, the culprit pushed momentarily through the surface to grab a fresh lungful of air, I filmed not the out-of-focus closing of opaque waters, but the strange creature itself.

Smooth skin glistening bright pink, a dorsal ridge with a kink two-thirds of the way along - unfortunately it was not what the BBC Natural History Unit had loaned me the equipment to film. The colour was right, but the profile was that of a standard-issue Amazon river dolphin (or boto) Inia geoffrensis - not the weird aberration I had spent a fruitless five weeks searching for. With just one more day at the lake before I had to leave, I badly needed a miracle.

Back at my temporary home - the solitary hut on the lake's central island - a group of itinerant fishermen had slung their hammocks for the night. By the smoky light of diesel lamps they peered at the photograph I had taken the year before: a curving row of sharp points, cutting the surface like the teeth of a giant circular saw - frozen by a shutter blinking open for 1/500th of a second (BBC Wildlife, April 1995).

"A hallucination!" hooted one man, not the first time I had had this reaction from a lifelong nomad of these backwaters.

But another man was looking more intently. "I know this animal," he said. "I first saw it when I was a boy, 20 years ago." I sat up. During my stay I had at least uncovered some of the animal's tracks in conversations with local people. But the trail had gone stone cold. This air of matter-of-fact familiarity seemed to hint at something warmer.

"It's always in the same area," he continued. "This lake here, and around the river bend it connects with." This was, on the face of it, unlikely, since all the floodplain backwaters merge every rainy season. But it squared with what other witnesses had said. So his next claim - that he had glimpsed it just a couple of weeks before, up a creek the other side of the river - rang true. I was, though, floored by what he said next.

"And a man I know saw it by the lake's outlet the day before yesterday."

Spinning, my mind started to crunch times, distances, and unknowns in an attempt to re-formulate X, the spot for my last-gasp ambush. The outlet was too far away to get there and back in a day. And my quarry was unlikely to be hanging around there anyway. Logic said that it was coming this way - towards a lake that takes half a day to circumnavigate. My best bet was to wait at this end of the outflow channel, at the lake's top end. Suddenly, the odds seemed marginally less than ridiculous. I retired to my hammock, impatient for dawn.

The call to morning coffee was, however, followed by bad news. My escort had to leave a day early - just as soon as I could get packed. Either I left with them or I was stranded here indefinitely. I packed everything except the camera. Our first few hours would be through the creature's territory. Just a couple of seconds could salvage my three-month trip. Pushing onto an unbroken surface, we followed the semi-sunken shrubs along the island's shore, turned the corner into the lake's shallow upper arm, then slid down the long zigzag channel to the river. At the channel's mouth, I stepped onto the muddy bank and scanned the water - long enough for anything that was holding its breath to surface. All we saw were ordinary pink dolphins. The quest had failed. We rounded the impossibly long bend to a hut at its upstream extremity, where we transferred to a bigger canoe with a primitive outboard.

The afternoon passed. Two more bends and a long, high-banked straight. Then, at the third bend, alongside the mouth of a black-water stream, the motor coughed and died. As the helmsman removed and cleaned the spark plug, anxiously glancing over his shoulder at the storm that was chasing us, dolphins started to appear near the boat. And the more we clattered about, bailing water and dropping spanners, the more active they became. Idly I took out the camera, and with the last minutes of the last battery started to film them.

Something sliced the surface that, even now on replay, I can't clearly discern, yet which provoked an involuntary reaction on the soundtrack. Then, rising right in the middle of the viewfinder, something like a gear wheel in the river's workings was momentarily exposed. In fact, it was so unbelievable that I didn't register it at the time. Only later in the journey, after a drenching by a storm, with no power left for playback, did the image leak into my consciousness. Then I had to endure a three-week wait before verifying it on a proper monitor.

But, though now captured on tape, the sawtooth dolphin still isn't answering any questions. It declares only its existence, undeniable and exuberant. In fact, looking at the film now, it appears almost to flaunt its strangeness - or is this my imagination?



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