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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Book Review: Journey of the Pink Dolphins - An Amazon Quest

"I had followed the dolphins into realms I had never before imagined they might take me - into treetops, inside black waters, though the looking-glass world of the forest's powers.  And now, they had led again to new territory: to the people's understanding of the world beneath the river; to the edge of that thin line between animal and human, water and land, fear and desire."

Over the years I've spent in zoos and aquariums, there is one creature of the Amazon that I've always wanted to see, but have never had the chance.  During my lifetime, only a single zoo specimen has existed in this country - a solitary male at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium known as "Chuckles."  That creature is the Amazon river dolphin, Inia geoffrensis, one of the most enigmatic creatures of an enigmatic river.

In Journey of the Pink Dolphins, nature writer Sy Montgomery has fallen under the spell of the dolphins, and her desire to know them better draws her to the very heart of the Amazon.  Mostly, she is drawn to the unique role that the dolphins play in the folklore of the local peoples.  To them, the dolphin is a shape-shifter, one with the power to take the form of a handsome man or a beautiful woman and to lure unsuspecting humans to Encante, an enchanted world beneath the surface of the river.

In her pursuit of the dolphin, known locally as the boto, Montgomery and her friends meet up with various researchers who study the dolphins and other creatures of river.  Many of them describe their frustrations with studying the elusive dolphins, hidden in the murk and only visible in patchwork glances.  Even the most basic questions - Are they endangered? Do they migrate? - prove difficult to answer.  Among the researchers that she encounters is, to put it lightly, a bit of a new-age hippie, who's research seems largely to consist of determining if the dolphins like Pink Floyd more or less than other bands.

If Journey of the Pink Dolphins has one major failing, it's the narrator.  As compelling as the botos are, I have a hard time getting past my personal irritation with Montgomery.  She often comes across as rather sappy, other times plaintive and whiny, seeming more like a spoiled tourist than a naturalist,  All of her descriptions are too drippy, too misty-eyed; for all of her mocking of the new-age naturalists that she encounters periodically, she doesn't seem that much more grounded in science.  It's almost as if the botos aren't extraordinary enough as they are, and she feels as if they need to be dressed up in hyperbole.

Montgomery offers readers a few into a life that few would otherwise see - the life of a traveler on the world's largest river.  She meets many extraordinary people who share their stories of dolphins and other creatures of the Amazon.  Unfortunately, we only ever see things through her eyes, and, for me at least, she's a hard writer to enjoy.  But, for a special peek into the life of an animal that I've always wanted to encounter, I'm willing to read on with just the occasional eye-roll.

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