Every year the Amazon rises over its banks and inundates the forest, sinking tree trunks and smaller plants under up to ten meters of water. Weaving between the trees, all manners of river creatures explore the forest. The boto, or Amazon river dolphin, specializes in hunting here.
The boto is a rarely seen species, one of the few freshwater cetaceans. We don’t even have enough data on it to classify it as endangered or not. It hunts using sonar to track fish through muddled, near opaque waters. Vision is so useless here that the boto is almost blind. Unfused vertebrae allow it to crane its neck 180 degrees and twist its way through tangled vegetation.
The native tribes of the Amazon actually have some interesting myths about the boto. It’s not well liked. While it is taboo to kill a dolphin, they’re regarded as bad omens. Making eye contact with one will curse you with unending nightmares. One of the most prevalent beliefs says that the boto is a shapeshifter and trickster. As the folklorist Câmara Cascudo says,
The dolphin seduces the girls of the tributaries of the River Amazon and is the father of all the children of unknown responsibility. In the first hours of the night he transforms himself into a handsome young man, tall, white, strong, a great dancer and drinker, he appears at the dances, courts, converses, frequents gatherings and faithfully attends encounters with females. Before dawn, he jumps in the water and returns to being a dolphin. -Câmara Cascudo, 1972
Perhaps this is related to the fact that dolphins are occasionally known for their “misdirected sexual behavior towards humans”. Perhaps this myth serves as a convenient excuse for suspicious pregnancies. Similar myths are actually found regarding the baiji, or Yangtze river dolphin, as well. Perhaps there is some modicum of natural empathy, an ability to see ourselves in them and them as us, between humans and river dolphins.