Relaxing with River Dolphins

So on Friday, we finally did it–my husband and I got out there and did something Surinamesey. (Yes, I’m aware that “Surinamesey” is not technically a word. But I hereby nominate it for official recognition by Misters Merriam and Webster.)

Truthfully, I’m a bit embarrassed that it has taken us so long to get out there and be adventuresome. After all, we’ve been living in Suriname for about six weeks now. We’ve even gotten most of our boxes unpacked and put away around the house. (Though I’m still eagerly awaiting the additional 4 boxes of books headed our way from our D.C. storage unit. To say I’m a little excited for their arrival would be a fine example of litotes.) But with both of us working full-time at the Embassy, and large chunks of my weekend absorbed by writing time, it’s been tricky to carve out time and energy to take the advantage we should of this place we currently call home.

But thanks to some colleagues who are far more organized than I, we finally found ourselves on the sunset Paramaribo River cruise, dolphin watching.

Huh? you may be asking. How do river and dolphin go together in one cruise?

Here’s the answer: the dolphins we were after (for viewing purposes only!) are a species altogether different from the bottlenecks I’m used to seeing around my native Texas Gulf Coast. Here in Suriname, the prevalent species is the aquatic tucuxi dolphin (at least that’s what my independent research indicated). In addition to being smaller than their bottleneck cousins (5ish feet vs 6.5-13 feet), they also claim freshwater and brackish territories rather than oceanic turf. The tucuxi’s appearance is distinctive, too. Granted, they aren’t nearly as terrifying looking as the related Amazon river dolphin (which is a beastie rather appropriate in appearance for Halloween-time). Yet the tucuxi still boasts a distinctive look, with its beautiful pink belly.

amazon-river-dolphin
Amazon river dolphin, Andre Zumak

I had the good fortune to see one jump right off the prow of the boat, with that rosy underside clearly visible. Unfortunately, even the best of my photos reveal only a hint of this unique coloration, as these quick creatures were not easy to catch in action.

Still, there were a multitude of them all around our boat, usually in groups of 2-4, identifiable by the smooth, charcoal-y humps of their backs sliding through the water. Finding them required about 25 minutes of boating along the river. But once we’d identified the pod’s hangout, we were in business. I can’t say this dolphin sighting wins the Most Exciting Ever! award; that honor goes to the time my family’s fishing trip in Mexico landed us in the midst of a pod of spinner dolphins that had to number in the 100s. But rather it was a more, and almost therapeutically, serene experience. Watching the tucuxi skim through the river waves was a pretty perfect cherry on the end of the work week. (If a work-week is comparable to a sundae, anyway.) My stress just melted away.

pink-bellied-tucuxi
Tucuxi dolphin

Needless to say, an hour and a half of cruising the river, complete with dolphin sighting and a sunset view, was a lovely experience. (And incredibly, ridiculously inexpensive, at around 5 USD per person.) Growing up where I did, dolphin watching is something I hold close to my heart… but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a novelty. I’ve seen dolphins on fishing excursions out to the artificial reefs of abandoned oil rigs. I’ve spotted them jumping near the jetties that brindle my home beach. Several are being rehabilitated at the Texas State Aquarium, a locale I’ve hit more times than I can count, given that it’s in my hometown in the Lone Star State.

Still, the Surinamese river cruise had a wonderful, exotic vibe to it that was altogether new to me. For one thing, I can’t say I’ve ever had a brackish water experience. My nose kept telling me it was salt water our boat was skimming over. But my skin argued that the water must be fresh, given that the spray hitting my face was far less sticky than the oceanic version. It was a confusing sensory experience for a girl who’d previously considered herself pretty water savvy.

For another, our vessel was a far cry from the Boston Whalers I’m used to. Our Surinamese boat was like a water version of the tuk-tuks we used while in Cambodia–well-shaded from the sun by a roof… but with a home-made kind of feel to the construction. As my dad pointed out upon seeing pictures, our conveyance was really more like a largish skiff than a boat. Fortunately, I’m not a particularly nervy sort; otherwise, my I hope this thing doesn’t flip over. Aren’t there piranha in this river?  thought would have been less fleeting. As it was, I just shrugged and hopped aboard.

Another difference: running home from our adventures in the Gulf Coast wouldn’t have given us a whimsical glimpse of hundreds of egrets coming home to roost in the mangrove trees. And although I’ve seen many a luscious sunset coloring Texas’s coast, I can’t say I’ve ever experienced a sunset view accented with cannons and Dutch-style dikes (a hold over, I’m guessing, from Suriname’s time as a colony of the Netherlands).

All in all, our river cruise was for me one of those rare experiences that is both resonant with memory and refreshingly new. A hint of the familiar, with a tinge of the exotic. In short: a perfect way to kick off another weekend in Suriname, and an experience well worth repeating several times over (especially at the 5 USD per person price tag.

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