So Hollywood has you fooled that pirañas are the most dangerous thing in the Amazon river?
Don’t feel bad, they film plenty of nonsense. Let me explain why piranhas are not the most dangerous thing in the murky waters of my home.
To get attacked by pirañas you would have to combine a few circumstances. Here is a short list of variables that could get you eaten by piranhas.
1. Swimming in a lake where there are only piraña, ( only piraña because they ate everything else in the lake.)
2. The lake is reduced in water and baitfish concentrating the hungry piraña.
3. You are bleeding before you enter the water.
4. You have shiny jewelry on, attracting a bite.
For the most part, we swim in areas that are not reduced and have plenty of baitfish in the water. Oran creek and the Amazon beaches are nice for swimming. Although there are pirañas in Oran creek, the odds of getting attacked are really slim. We swim with them every day and anyways there are other things to worry about. Such as…
Scavenger and parasitic catfish: Here I will describe two types of catfish that you do not want to run into on their turf.
The whale candiru Cetopsis coecutiens)also know as canero in Peru. This primitive species of catfish is the number one scavenger in the Amazon river. This by far is one of the scariest fish that could attack you. They have razor sharp teeth that slice,spin and cut a chunk of flesh leaving a hole in your side. The worst would come after the initial bite, others would continue in the same area and try to get inside you through a custom made hole. I have not been bitten by one of these, there have been close calls like when the logs of my raft could not support the weight of gear and people. We would have been sitting ducks for a school of candiru. They move in packs and can devour flesh very quick with their shark like jaws. They are ten times more aggressive than piraña. Why? Because you do not need to be bleeding for one of these guys to tear a hole in you! I have a friend in a neighboring village that has a circular scar on his leg from one of these. He was lucky to be close to shore. Preventative measures would be to stay close to shore. We have never had an attack on our clients while swimming.
The video below shows two different scavengers, the lighter blue fish is the whale candiru. The others are spotted catfish that are not as aggressive to living things.WARNING, NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART, GRAPHIC VIDEO OF NATURE . The fish you see us using as bait is caught for human consumption, what is left is composted. These fish were not killed for video purposes.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pr4H_VcJZsQ&w=560&h=315]
The candiru asu: familyVandelliinae also known as the penis fish, bloodsucking catfish, needle catfish, vampire fish, toothpick fish and so on. There are scores of names for these guys and many different species within their family that are host specific. One thing to remember is that HUMANS ARE NOT THEIR NATURAL HOST! These parasitic fish feed on the blood of other fish from within their gills. The candiru can only go in one direction due to its backwards facing needle like spines on its gill cover. If one ends up in a human, it is always death for the fish and excruciating pain for the victim. The only immediate relief is surgery.
These ectoparasites are very common in the gills of large catfish. Fish gills excrete urea during their gas exchange,the majority (although very few) of human cases were because the bather was urinating while in the water. The candiru follows the plume of urea to the source and proceeds to enter. The best way to prevent this from occurring is to not urinate in the water and to use tight underpants beneath the swimwear. This particular candiru was caught with a net while ten of us swam on the beach. We caught many individuals and three different species. No one urinated in the water and no one was harmed. We have never had any clients or workers affected by this.
Last year, a boy was swimming on a popular beach on the river Nanay. There were many bathers and I am sure some must have relived themselves in the water. The boy felt a sudden sharp pain entering his anus. The boys family rushed him to the hospital where he remained in a state of shock. The doctors applied an anesthetic enema to the boy with copious amounts of water until the fish relaxed and slid right out (this extraction method is only possible where there is ample space for the fish to squirm around).
The electric fish: Very common and attracted to agitation on the waters surface and electrical signals in the water. The electric fish or electric eel (Electrophorus electricus) loves dark places such as log jams,slow forest streams and even ephemeral pools where they will slide out of as the water source dries. The electric fish has harnessed this energy to use in ways unimaginable.They can use this ability for communication, defense and to stun prey. There are few occasions that death is caused by them ( Probably because missing persons never tell what happened). I have been zapped by smaller ones while washing dinner plates in the water on camping trips, while releasing them from my hanging hooks with insulated pliers and by handling smaller individuals. While an adult can release over 600volts on an attack, they would rarely use it against humans, we are not their food source. I worry more about the electric fish than piraña. Here is a couple of videos about catching electric fish, although they are not a desired fish to catch and eat, they often take the hook.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDziGXAhjfU&w=560&h=315]
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INQZUPxF264&w=420&h=315]If you are weary about the presence of electric fish in your swimming hole, sit back on the bank and observe the waters surface. The fish needs to surface to breathe so you will see and hear it as it sucks in air with a lip smacking sound. I once had a six foot individual swim less than a few feet from where I was working in the water. It didn’t discharge, it just swam on by. You could provoke an attack by bothering one but the chances of that happening would be rare.
The freshwater stingray: There are many species of freshwater stingray in the Amazon river basin. They all have their specific habits and feeding preferences. The rays can be found on beaches, lakes, fast moving streams and the big river itself. They can grow to tremendous sizes 100k+ and be in the shallowest of waters. Whenever we go swimming in the beaches and rivers, it is important to always shuffle your feet. It would be better to kick a ray on the wing than to step directly on it. 100% of the time if a ray feels something on the edge of its wing,it will swim out of the way. 100% of the time if a ray feels downward pressure anywhere on its body, it will strike with its tail which has a rudimentary stinger with venom that would make the strongest of people wither and cry. The first thing to do after a sting is to apply heat, the heat denatures the enzyme (venom) that produces the excruciating pain and swelling. With treatment, the sting and swelling goes down. If you are lucky there is only a small spot of necrosis that will go away in a few weeks time
Necrotizing fasciitis. Flesh eating bacteria
This is caused by certain bacterias such as Aeromonas hydrophila ,Clostridium perfringens and Streptococcus ( the list goes on) that can be found in the sediment of warm standing water almost anywhere in the world. Also generalized as flesh eating bacteria, the infection can spread lightning fast and kill within 48 hours of contraction. The bacteria can be introduced through the nasal passages when stirring up sediment in shallow waters. Open wounds can also be infected just by contact with the disturbed sediment. Early symptoms consist of exaggerated pain in small insignificant wounds. The infection spreads below the skin where oxygen is scarce just like in the sediment. For the most part, healthy people with un compromised immune systems will fight off the infection without problem. If not treated quickly, the infection will consume tissue and give off toxins that further worsen the situation. I would post some photos of infections but it is quite graphic, more so than the videos of the scavenger catfish. This is not something that people contract everyday. I of all people have not come in contact with this type of infection. I have wallowed in some of the nastiest cesspools netting fish in rotting sediment and have no flesh eating bacteria to speak of. One of the most famous cases is from a young woman from Georgia USA that had an accident while zip lining across a river in Georgia. She survived after they amputated her infected leg.
Last but most certainly not the least is the Amazon river itself. Being the largest freshwater system in the whole world also has the largest whirlpools. Whirlpools have been known to swallow boats whole never to surface again. While navigating it is important to steer away from the whirlpools even though they can pop up out of nowhere. It takes a good seasoned driver (like myself ) to see ahead and steer clear of these insatiable vortexes. Last year, a less responsible tour company allowed its clients to jump in the confluence of the Marañon and Ucayali rivers. They all had life preservers on. Twelve jumped in but only eleven came out. The maelstrom swallowed a young British tourist pulling him to the depths. He was caught in a fishing net some twenty miles downstream the next day. Please no matter how strong a swimmer you think you are-you are nothing compared to this unpredictable force of nature.
So, to recap on the things to do when swimming in the Amazon.
1. Stay close to shore
2. Wear tight underpants
3. Use the bathroom out of the water
4. Cover open wounds or just don’t go in if you have them
5. Stay away from log jams ( unless you are looking for something)
6. Always shuffle your feet while in the water
7. Stay out of stagnant pools
8. Try not to get sediment in your mucous membranes
9. Don’t jump in the middle of the river or fast moving current
If you are considering trip to the Amazon River, please do not let this discourage you. Just choose a responsible, professional travel company such as Otorongo Expeditions and rest assure you are in good hands