The world's most elusive dolphins

JOURNEY OF THE PINK DOLPHINS: An Amazon Quest By Sy Montgomery Simon & Schuster 317 pp., $26

In "Journey of the Pink Dolphins," nature writer Sy Montgomery takes us on a rich odyssey both real and mythical in search of these elusive creatures.

Dolphins and humans have been enamored of each other since their first meeting. Many people dream of swimming with dolphins, perhaps more out of a sense of kinship than a desire to glide effortlessly under water.

Montgomery was similarly enticed, and began her quest hoping to follow a little-studied group of fresh-water pink dolphins that live in the Amazon River in Brazil. She writes, "To see a dolphin emerge from the water feels to me like a glimpse of a lost twin."

There are five species of river dolphins in the world, and none is well understood. Scientists don't know if they live in social groups or if they migrate, nor do they know much about their physiology. The Amazon pink dolphin species, Inia geoffrensis, can stretch to eight feet long and weigh 40 pounds. It lacks the prominent dorsal fin of most dolphins, instead sporting a low ridge along its back so it can easily navigate through the branches and trees covering the Amazon during the rainy season. It has a troll-like forehead, tiny eyes, huge flippers that are almost like wings, and a long tubular snout that often curves to the side, as though it has been bent. It has conical teeth that can crush a turtle shell. Its ancestors may have entered the Amazon from the Pacific Ocean as long as 15 million years ago.

What has daunted scientists is the secretive behavior of the pink dolphins. Unlike marine dolphins, which leap out of the water and approach boats to make friends, pink dolphins often swim by unnoticed. When they do approach a boat, observers may only hear the whoosh of an exhaled breath, or see a pinkish shadow graze the water's surface. This has made it difficult to identify individual pink dolphins for closer study.

But Montgomery's dogged determination amid grueling conditions gives us some of the most detailed glimpses of these amazing mammals to date. She peppers her text with anecdotes to bring us the sights and sounds of the river and local market-places.

In beautiful phrasing, image-provoking detail, and humor, she tells us how getting a frozen chicken for her guide delayed one excursion. When she finally saw her first pink dolphin, she was in an aluminum boat amid a lightening storm. "The water had turned a molten silver," she writes, "and the world looked like a photographic negative. Pink lightening throbbed on all sides.... The skies flashed pink, back and forth, like a message, a summons, an agreement, while invisible dolphins surrounded us with the moist promise of their breath."

But understandably, for a nature writer like Montgomery, hearing breaths and seeing pink shadows wasn't enough. She delves into the local lore surrounding the pink dolphins in an effort to better understand them, with the hope of ultimately seeing one up close.

The local people believe the pink dolphins can work magic. Taking human form, they supposedly try to seduce people at night and take them away forever to Encante, their world beneath the river. Encante is so beautiful that those who visit it never want to leave. Writes Montgomery, "But beneath the river, they say, is a place of unimaginable riches, the treasures of lost souls, pleasures to quench every desire. The dolphins there preside over a world where there is no longing, only music and singing and dancing."

Montgomery went so far as to take Ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogen, to help her see the dolphins and Encante. But she ended up vomiting for hours.

The end of the book does bring success, however. In Ponto de Curucu, a group of pink dolphins joined her for regular swims. She and photographer Dianne Taylor Snow were able to identify seven dolphins in enough detail to name them.

The book ends with Montgomery musing over her new-found aqua-friends and comparing the dance of the dolphins to a performance at the lavish opera house in Manaus. As the curtain closes on the opera and the book, we find ourselves enchanted by Encante, but wanting more earthly revelations about these mysterious beings. Montgomery leaves that to readers, along with a detailed bibliography and list of conservation and expedition groups.

* Lori Valigra is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Mass.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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