Rio Manu
A flower on a riverbank, La Selva, Costa Rica.

Swimming in rainforest rivers - Part 2

Lakes and rivers of Pantanal, an area of seasonally flooded savanna in Brazil and Paraguay, is one of the World's most spectacular places for swimming.
viscacha coipu coipu
Large rodents of Parana river basin, left to right: plains viscacha (Lagostomus maximus) and nutria (Myocastor coypus, 2 photos). Rio Pilcomayo Nat'l Park, Paraguay/Argentina.
Three-band armadillo (Tolypeutes matacus),
Parque Nacional Rio Pilcomayo, Argentina.
Water is usually too murky for snorkelling, but you'll be surrounded by Jurassic-scale concentrations of large reptiles - mostly caimans Caiman yacare and C. latirostris, but also anacondas, turtles etc. armadillo
Three-band armadillo (Tolypeutes matacus),
Parque Nacional Rio Pilcomayo, Argentina.
capybara mara mara
Large rodents of Parana river basin, left to right: capybara (Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris), lesser mara (Dolichotis salinicola, 2 photos). Rio Pilcomayo Nat'l Park, Paraguay/Argentina.
Monk parakeet (Myopsitta monachus),
Parque Nacional Rio Pilcomayo, Argentina.
Pantanal attractions include immense flocks of storks, herons and other birds, numerous large mammals, world's largest leeches Haementeria ghilianii, two hundred frog species, and countless other impressive wildlife. bird
Guira cuckoo (Guira guira), Parque Nacional
Rio Pilcomayo, Argentina.
heron heron heron
Green heron (Butorides striatus), Volcan Baru National Park, Panama.
Pantanal caiman (C. latirostris), Parque Nacional
Rio Pilcomayo, Argentina.
In the Amazon, the crocodilians you most often encounter in rivers are white caimans (C. crocodylus crocodylus). They are strictly nocturnal. caiman
Pantanal caimans are generally harmless. Parque Nacional
Rio Pilcomayo, Argentina.
American crocodiles (Crocodylus
) and one Spectacled caiman
(Caiman crocodylus mexicanus,
with orange-tinted eyes), Santa
Rosa National Park, Costa Rica.
Larger black caimans (Melanosuchus niger) are more common in oxbow lakes. I have encountered them many times, day and night, but they never showed any sign of aggression. In Orinoco basin this species is replaced by Orinoco crocodile (Crocodylus intermedius), also said to be dangerous, but extremely rare. In Central America, there are also caimans and crocodiles, but they are not so large.
Freshwater stingrays (Potamotrygon motoro), Manu National Park, Peru.
Other dangers of tropical rivers are also overestimated. It is a good idea to wear a t-shirt and light pants - small fishes sometimes like to bite protruding parts of your body. Tight swimming suite will protect you from infamous candiru - tiny catfish, parasiting in urinary tract of large fish. Try to avoid river bottom when possible - there are logs and stingrays (freshwater stingrays, by the way, are among the world's most beautiful fishes). Do not enter places with too fast current, and always move slowly in small creeks with muddy bottoms - beware of electric eels. snake
Bothrops pit vipers are
the only poisonous
snakes in Amazon you
can sometimes see
without special effort.
snakemonster snake
Tropical rattlesnake (Crotalus dirissus) and a giant whipscorpion, Braulio Carillo National Park, Costa Rica.
Common boa (Boa constrictor),
Jumandi Caves, Ecuador. Giant
snakes - anacondas and pythons - can
be potentially dangerous, but your
chances of being attacked are minimal.
Parasites are mostly present downstream from farms and villages; it's a good idea to have some metronidazol-based pills in your backpack. There are also parasites in lakes, but diving there is worth the risk: lake water is often transparent enough to see fish and other creatures, and there is even more wildlife around lakes, than on river banks: giant otters, goatzins, ad infinitum. The main danger in any rainforest are mosquitoes, but you avoid most of them (and gnats, and blackflies, and sandflies, and leeches, and ticks, and vampire bats) simply by getting into the water.
frog frog frog frog frog
frog Poison-dart frogs, upper row, left to right: Dendrobates granuliferus, D. auratus, Phyllobates vittatus (Costa Rica), D. histrionicus, D. intermedius (Colombia), middle row -D. reticulatus, Epipedobates parvulus (Ecuador), bottom row - Ph. terribilis, D. leucomelas, D. tinctorius (Venezuela), E. tricolor, D. lamasi (Peru). frog
frog frog frog frogfrog
Foothill and mountain rivers are particularly challenging. Usually, you can find maximum biodiversity in rainforests at elevations 500-1500 m, but rivers can be very cold and dangerous here. Local people can sometimes tell you what parts of a river are the safest. The advantage of mountain rivers is that there are almost no dangerous animals or parasites here, and you can sometimes travel very fast. The only crocodiles here are dwarf caimans (Paleosuchus). Water can be very clear, so sometimes it is a good idea to have a mask on - you'll get better view of underwater obstacles, not to mention underwater fauna. If the river is too unsafe for swimming, floating in a small canoe can also get you close to animals on the banks, although not as
Children of Bosque de Coca Indians,
Rio Magdalena, Colombia.
birdbird birdbird
Pauraque nightjars (Nyctidromus albicollis) - male, female on a nest, and two chicks. Corcovado Nat'l Park, Costa Rica.
Tepui plateaus, Canaima River, Venezuela.
tepuiSome foothill rivers are very beautiful, such as rivers of Guyana Highlands, where you can see fantastic tepui landscape and World's tallest waterfalls.
Most high-elevation rivers are too fast to swim in, but if you have a wet suit, or can tolerate cold water for a while, you can use mountain lakes instead. Lake Titicaca in South America is an excellent place to observe rare birds, amphibians and fishes. Here you can swim, paddle in a traditional boat made of totora (tule Scirpus californicus), or use man-made islands as moving blinds to see flightless grebes and other wildlife.uros
Village of Uros Indians
on a floating island.
Lake Titicaca near
Sullistani, Peru.
Rosy-billed pochards
(Netta peposaca), Lago
Todos Los Santos, Chile.
Lake Ninyococha, Ecuador,
habitat of woolly tapir
(Tapirus pinchaque).
Sunrise in cloud forests
around Lago Muerte,
Costa Rica.
Cattleya paloma, one of
250 orchid species of
Lago Iguaque, Colombia.
Chitwan National Park, Nepal.
Trying this method in Southern China and in the terai of Nepal, I got mixed results. In Yunnan, tropical forests are completely cleared along Mekong and other large rivers, so you can only use small forest streams. You mostly have to walk here, not swim, but it is also a good way to see wildlife. Forests of lowland Nepal are more dry, open and road-crossed, and most of large animals are so accustomed to people that you can simply walk by. There are two species of crocs, but gharial (Gavialus gangeticus) feeds almost entirely on fish, and mugger (Crocodylus palustris) is more common in lakes and ponds. Unfortunately, most rivers in Southern China and Nepal are heavily polluted, and in India the situation must be even worse.
Still, I could see some nice animals on river banks - rhinos, deer, gharials, ghaurs, fishing cats, splendid tiger pythons, dozens of huge monitor lizards, as well as kingfishers and other beautiful birds.
Muntjak deer (Muntiacus muntjak)
on a beach, Chitwan, Nepal.
Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros
), Chitwan, Nepal.
Philippine crocodile,
Kata Swamp, Palawan.
The situation is much worse on the Philippines, where virtually all river valles are cultivated, and unique native fauna is clinging to existance in tiny patches of remaining forests, mostly on mountain tops. Only on one island, Palawan, could I find few small forested rivers, and such local endemics as Philippine crocodile (Crocodilus mindorensis). The larger species, saltwater crocodile (C. porosus), seems to be already extinct. Some of the best rivers are in St. Paul National Park, including a special treat - 20-km long underground river with stunning diverity of fauna.
Darter (Anchinga melanogaster), Kinabatangan River, Sabah.
One famous place to see animals from water is Kinabatangan River in Malaysian Borneo. Motorboat rides are a popular tourist attraction there, but you'll see more wildlife by swimming or paddling in a small dugout boat. Waterbirds, monkeys, otters, and kingfishers are most commonly seen, but dense vegetation around smaller channels and oxbow lakes shelter also civets, hornbills, orangutans, pythons, and countless other inhabitants.view
Flooded forest, Kinabatangan.
Oxbow lake, Kinabatangan.
Traveling through flooded forest.
During the wet season (October-March), forests along Sugai Kinabatangan are mostly flooded, so you can easily swim or paddle around. Don't forget your mask - the water is full of barbuses and other beautiful fishes.
I'd really like to float the entire length of Lower Kinabatangan some day. A trip from the highway bridge where forests begin to the river mouth should take a few days in a kayak.
Kingfishers of Malaysian rivers, left to right: Alcedo euryzona, A. meninting (two pictures), A. rufidorsa.
Forest rivers of Sichuan are clear, but fast. You can see some of the World's rarest animals here, such as both pandas, many pheasants and dozens of small mammals few people have ever seen, but you have to be a good swimmer and make sure there are no waterfalls or rapids downstream. You'll probably need a wetsuit, and a lot of paperwork to deal with locals. Unfortunately, these rivers are usually flooded throughout the warm season - first from snowmelt, and then from monsoon rains and thawing glaciers.takin
Takin (Budorcas
), Wolong
Nat. Park, Sichuan.
Houseboats on Yangtze River, China.
Side channels and bayous of lower Yangtze River were once an excellent place to see wildlife by swimming. Now they are all destroyed, and the river itself is dammed and polluted. In 1993, it was still possible to swim in Wuhu Nature Reserve, and to see rare birds, fish, deer, dolphins and alligators. I do not know what does this place look like now.
Further north, Amur and Ussuri rivers have interesting fauna, in the water as well as on riverbanks. But the Russian/Chinese border mostly follows them, so the best parts are off-limits. Swimming in small forest rivers of Ussuriland in summer can also be very interesting. As everywhere, it should be done at night or at dusk as often as possible, because most forest mammals are active at night. Morning hours are better for birds, and midday for some reptiles. In Ussuriland, Siberian tiger is the top prize, but don't count on it. fish
Giant kaluga sturgeon (Huso
), Amur River, Russia.
Blackwater bayou in baldcypress
forest, Okefenokee Swamp, USA.
Probably the best place outside the tropics to see wildlife by swimming is in Southeastern United States. This area has outstandingly diverse freshwater fauna. Baldcypress forests and blackwater bayous (side channels) of local rivers are very beautiful, but there are so many mosquitoes and blood-sucking flies in summer, that staying in the water is the only way to explore them comfortably. This ancient world can be seen in Nature reserves of Florida, Gulf Coast, parts of Georgia and the Carolinas. Water is usually warm here from late spring to mid-autumn. In colder months, you can get around in a canoe. By visiting the area in winter, you will avoid mosquitoes and be able to see terrestrial animals through leafless forest, but miss amphiumas, sirens, turtles etc.
in USA
are often
tame and
easy to
North American otter (Lontra
), Okefenokee, USA.
Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga),
Everglades, USA.
Swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus),
Guadalupe River, USA.
Atchafalaya River, USA.
Alligators (Alligator mississippiensis), snakes and giant snapping turtles are abundant in these rivers, but you are not at serious risk, unless you try to catch them, or you are a small kid. If you want to avoid encountering too many reptiles, try swimming at dawn, when the air is cool, or choose narrow channels - there you'll have better chances of seeing them first. Alligators seldom attack to kill, and snakes never attack first at all. Carrying a wooden stick will make you feel more confident, and help you float.
Sunset on Kwati River, Chitwan National Park, Nepal.

Part 3

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