Created in 2006 by science journalist Paola Catapano, MINIDARWIN aims at taking groups of children on scientific expeditions coached by real scientists and science communication professionals.

On the occasion of International Year of Biodiversity 2010, theMiniDarwins are ready to leave on their third expedition, to the Amazon Forest, devoted to biodiversity and its socio-economic spin offs. The MiniDarwins will be coached by biodiversity scientists and an ecological socio-economist specialised in ethno-ecology to experience life with an Indigenous population in the Amazon Forest

During the trip, we will publish on this blog a diary of the expedition and some of the photos, videos, interviews and texts we are producing for later publication on our website, book, reportage and documentary film.

12 August 2010

River dolphin spotting

Thu Aug 12
This is a day we have all been looking forward to. Virginia, the researcher of the Boto (pink dolphin) project has asked the help of the children to observe the dolphins. This is one of the ways they are trying to learn about the dolphins and take care of the population in the Mamiraua reserve. A boat takes us to one of the lakes of the Solimões river (the name of the Amazon river before it reaches Manaus), that the researchers call ‘the shopping centre’. A suitable term because dolphins meet here in groups to find food. As soon as the sound of the motor has stopped, the pink dolphins begin to show up everywhere around us.
They surface in gracious bows above the water. « Just keep looking patiently in one direction, » Virginia advises the young dolphin spotters. « If you move around at every sound of an animal surfacing around you, it will be gone before you get a good look. » She’s asking the children to spot the brands on the back of the dolphins, each made of two characters. These observations are helpful to count the population and to learn about the travelling patterns of the dolphins. « One of our dolphins has once been spotted in Colombia, » says Virginia. « So we know now that they can travel over great distances. » « How do you brand the dolphins ? », Alberto wants to know.
 « Two times a year we catch a great number of dolphins with nets, » explains Virginia. « We bring them to our research centre to weigh them, take blood samples, see if they are healthy and make ultrasound to the females to see if they’re pregnant. Then we also brand them. We are using the method of freeze branding. This means we use freezing cold (almost -200˚ C.) liquid nitrogen to put the brand on their skin.  « Does that hurt the dolphins ? », asks Maxine. « It hurts them a bit, » says Virginia. « But we’re doing this for the preservation of the species. »
Ab has been listening to the reports on the pink dolphins by the researchers during the last few days. He thinks more should be done to preserve this species. « On the basis of their observations, the researchers think there are several tens of thousands of them left. This number does not put them on the list of threatened species yet. However the researchers have also told us that during the last fifteen years the number of pink dolphins have dropped by 50%.
If this trend continues in the next fifteen years, the situation will become critical. That’s why I think measures have to be taken now. First of all the deliberate killing of the animals by fishermen, who use them as bait for fishing cat fish, should be stopped. Our experience in Greece teaches that  this can be done, if there is an incentive for the fishermen to do so. »
« K.A. » shouts Kai, not to spell his own name, but because he just spotted the dolphin branded KA. He is using his photo camera to spot the animals and then enlarges the pictures on the lcd screen on the back to read the brands. A system that gives him an advantage, because for an untrained eye it is not easy to read the brands on the back of a moving dolphin. « JO or JU, » is the next one we see. « If you’ve spotted JO, this would be the first time we are seeing this dolphin back since a very long time »  Virginia tells us. It appears to be JU, who is the mother of a juvenile calf.
Dolphin calves stay with their mother until they’re 3 to 4 years old. That is why you can often spot two of them together. Sometimes an older calf stays with the mother, when a new calf is born. That’s when there are three of them. « There are no larger groups, » says Virginia. « But they come together at places like this « shopping centre ». » We spot a lot more dolphins before we go home,  happy with the idea that we have helped a little to learn more about the pink dolphins and convinced that more should be done to preserve this wonderful species.

The morning’s adventure made us even more curious about the pink dolphin, so we have accepted Virginia’s invitation to visit the Boto Vermelho headquarters, not far from the Uakari lodge. ‘Boto Vermelho’ means ‘red dolphin’ in Portuguese ; that is how they call it here. The centre is a floating house, just like our cabins at the Uakari-lodge, a little further up -river.
Four to five researchers live and work here for a couple of months, thus making a contribution to a research project that has started in 1994.  It is a cosy place, where they have everything they need, including a rudimentary fitness area near the floating vegetable garden. But they do not have a fridge (too energy consuming for solar power, they have ice boxes instead) and Internet ( HF radio instead). Here they bring in the dolphins they have caught in their nets, do their research on them, enter the data of their observations in the computer. But they also sleep and cook in the house.

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