Published in BBC Wildlife
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
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
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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