It’s a funny old world we live in. Today I’m sitting writing this in a hotel room at São Paulo airport, our flight home cancelled indefinitely because a volcano has erupted in Iceland, almost 10,000 km away. Yesterday, on our boat in the Amazon, if you’d have asked me to make a bet on the possibility of this particular reality transpiring, you’d probably be smiling your way to the bank right now with a fist full of very easy money.
It’s always a strange transition, traveling back to the urban environment from isolation in nature. The Amazon river is a formidable force of nature that consumes you with its magnitude and majesty, much like the awe-inspiring images of Iceland’s bellowing clouds of ash that I’ve seen here on CNN in the last few hours. I can’t help being reminded that whilst we continue living the somewhat strange contemporary lifestyles that many of us now do, it’s so easy to forget that we are still very much an intricate part of Mother Nature, even whilst we are sitting drinking a cappuccino in some faceless airport departure lounge. She can reach out to us at any time and completely redirect the course of our lives in a moment, something that the people with whom we’ve spent the last two weeks filming know only too well.
We have been living with a small community of 4 families who live on a small sand bar on the Rio Negro, about 2 days’ boat ride up river from Manaus. Our story here has been centred around the trials and tribulations of this isolated community who live within the ebb and flow of the largest fresh water mass on the planet. The seasons of the Amazon basin result in great changes in the volume of water surging down its arterial waterways. At this time of the year the people of the Rio Negro are preparing for the coming of the high waters and for our new friends here, this means the yearly ritual of saying a temporary farewell to the terra firma of their island existence as they retreat to their stilted houses for the 2-or-so months when the river surge completely floods the forests around their village, forcing them to adapt to a waterborne existence.
What none of us really understood very well before we came here, is that this small group of people have built up a beautifully inspiring relationship with some of the other non-human residents of the Rio Negro, and it is this story which has completely consumed me on this trip and the one that I have chosen to recount here.
On the day that we arrived we were greeted by our new hosts and promptly taken to see the water cages in which these people are nurturing thousands of young river turtles to be released back into the wild. It is a community run project attempting to swell the numbers of wild turtles in the Rio Negro which form an important source of food for the local inhabitants. By rescuing the buried eggs from well-known spawning beaches around the area and then allowing them to hatch within the safety of their own village, these people are safe guarding the young turtles from a short, hard-boiled life destined to appear on the dinner plates of local villagers.
Whilst we were standing waist deep in the Rio’s black waters observing the baby turtles, a dark shadow brushed past my leg and to my amazement, promptly swam up to one of our hosts and nudged her dangling hand with its long beak. ”Botos”, she mumbled as she grabbed its protruding nose with both hands, bursting into laughter as they momentarily play-fought in the water.
Botos are the Amazon’s resident river dolphins. At many spots along this part of the Rio Negro they are a common feature of people’s day-to-day lives due to their incredibly friendly nature. According to Wikipedia, ‘The brain of the river dolphin is 40% larger than a human brain‘. Now, whilst I can’t back up that fact with any of my own scientific evidence, I must admit that after a week of intimate interaction with these fabulous creatures in their natural habitat, I have to say that there is definitely something other-worldly about an experience within their wonderful auras. I feel very much more connected with the natural world right now.
The other day as I was resting on my bed in our boat, a small brown nondescript moth flew into my cabin and landed on the wall beside my head. Mesmerized, as I lay there staring at it, I realized that for the first time in absolutely ages, possibly even since I was a young boy in my family garden, I was looking at it with a genuine sense of awe and fascination. Such a seemingly mundane and insignificant creature had become an incredible manifestation of the beauty of nature with a huge beaming personality to boot! I am sure that it has been my interaction with these terrific river dolphins over the last week that has prized open that childlike side of me again.
. . .
A close encounter with a wild animal is always a humbling experience. Dolphins, however, appear to be one of those rare organisms on our planet that genuinely appear to want to reach out to our species. There’s a reason why dolphins have captured such a special place in hearts of many of the world’s cultures and that’s something that I hope will continue for many millenia into our shared futures.
If you ever want to feel like a kid again, go out into the world and see if you can meet a dolphin. You won’t be disappointed.
. . .
Still reading? Join in the discussion on my Facebook page.
Arriving at a sleepy southern Brazilian beach 5 days ago, none of our team could have predicted the scenes that would be surrounding us today. Back then, the area around our hotel resembled the opening scene of 28 Days Later due to fact that we have chosen to come here in Brazil’s winter season when the city’s population shrinks dramatically in the absence of its seasonal inhabitants.
Over the last few days we’ve all got very used to the quiet life here on our secluded cove, especially the 20 minute walk to work from our hotel . On our journey down the mile long deserted coastline we are accompanied only by the odd jogger and the beach’s resident population of turkey vultures which congregates here at first light in order to siphon off the last night’s bounty of carrion, washed ashore as the city slept.
Well, today that all changed. We came here to film the local fishermen. What we weren’t banking on was the fact that we ourselves might end up becoming the subject of inquistive cameras as word got out and the might of Brazil’s media descended upon our lonely beach to see what a BBC TV crew were doing in the area.
Needless to say, when you spend your life pointing cameras at people for a living, it’s only fair that you get as good as you give, so Director Tom and Rachael, our researcher, were happy to step up to the podium, taking turns to speak to the myriad of assembled reporters…
Cameraman Justin on the other hand, had to put his foot down in the end and point blank refused to talk to Canine Monthly…
This particular Human Planet shoot has demanded that I spend a fair bit of my time attempting to take pictures of dolphins breaching the ocean’s surface. It’s not something I’ve ever spent much time doing, but it has subsequently become a fascinating and quite addictive pastime. As an ode to my newest hobby, here is a clip of what for me still remains the most astonishing sequence ever recorded of an animal breaching at sea… Simon King shooting with a high speed camera for BBC’s Planet Earth in South Africa…
I think I must have watched this clip over fifty times since I first saw the original film… and it still gives me goose bumps. Combined with its ethereal soundtrack the images elicit such a graceful yet dramatic melange of emotions inside. A flawless exemplification of the bitter-sweet beauty of mother nature. Truly astounding.