It is impossible to visit Brazil without setting off on some kind of adventure. My husband suffered a deep-vein thrombosis after our last overseas trip and has been banned from riding his motorbike for the sixth months of his anti-coagulant treatment. Life has been tame, sedentary even.
When we were offered a drive in a beach buggy along the beautiful coast of Alagoas, we jumped at the chance. I mean – on and off the potholed roads, up and down dunes, across riverbanks clinging to the back of a buggy – what could be safer?
You might recall that earlier in the year we failed to track down the elusive dugong in the warm waters off Mozambique. Hence we aimed to connect with its more sociable cousin, the peixe-boi in a sultry tidal river along the coast of Brazil. The West-Indian Manatee is one of four rare, endangered species of Sirenia or sea cows – so named because they turn (sea!) grass into milk. A fresh-water relative exists in the waters of the Amazon (no wonder they are endangered – with all those piranha on the prowl, not to mention the giant anaconda?) But the peixe-boi is a marine mammal, native to the warm waters of the Caribbean, extending as far down the coast as Salvador. We were to visit an ecological project where orphaned pups are rescued and breeding takes place with the hope of introducing the next generation back into the wild.
Now, not to be rude about Brazilian ideas of ecology but these are the same people who took us on a “passeio” to the offshore reef with instructions to respect the natural environment (yes, hold onto that bit of coral there and please return the starfish to its preferred location after you have had your photograph taken.)
To be fair, they had developed ingenious ways of protecting the project from over-subscribed tourism – it took at least an hour to get across the river on the expensive four-car ferry to reach the small town of Tatuamunha, home to the project. Having paid our moderate entrance fee, we trudged half a kilometer along wooden pontoons through the mangrove swamps.
Bright red and yellow crabs winked up at us from the mud – a colorful change from the blue ones being offered for lunch at the cafe-while-you-wait by the ferry. In Africa we are accustomed to ecological safaris. Both tourists and rangers understand the necessity of dressing in brown and khaki to blend in with the natural environment. Brazilian eco-tour guides naturally dress in bright orange and blue to attract the toucans and other local birds.
We arrived at a muddy brown river and were bundled onto a blue boat equipped with twin outboard motors (see photo below.) Across the river a man was standing knee-deep alongside a kayak. How strange, we thought, till we realized that our friendly peixe-boi was frantically clinging with his flipper onto the side of the small boat, thus impeding its movement. As we punted along our tour guide waxed lyrical about this exciting project to rescue orphaned calves and explained the importance of avoiding the small buoys on the surface, which were attached to older animals being weaned from human dependence. We sailed to the small boma where the new animals were kept and then we were invited to swim in the scenic river – yes, it did look like a scene from Anaconda-the-Movie but at least there was no sign of our gentle giants. In fact, when we returned to our departure station we discovered that the peixe-boi were exactly where we had left them, cuddling up to the blue boat.
I began to wonder (and let’s face it, one’s mind does wander when trying to listen to educational splurb in a foreign language) – was it possible that our orphans, like baby ducklings, had actually ‘imprinted’ on the tour boat? The poor thing was evidently desperate to find a mother and fortunately colour-blind as well. No one had explained the significance of its floating buoy.