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River Dolphin (Boto)

The cetacean is a completely aquatic mammal, like whales and other dolphins, which inhabits the rivers of northern Brazil.

River Dolphin (Boto)

Article available in: PT-BR

Last update: 02/12/2016

By: Semira Adler Vainsencher - N/I

The river dolphin was discovered and scientifically studied by Rodrigues Ferreira, in February 1790, and Henry Walter Bates, an Englishman who spent eleven years researching the flora and fauna of the Amazon region. The cetacean is a completely aquatic mammal, like whales and other dolphins, which inhabits the rivers of northern Brazil. It has a large head, a toothed beak, a tapered and almost hairless body, large front flippers (like the blade of an oar), two breasts positioned on its underside, a tail that ends in long, horizontal flukes, and a sophisticated sonar system located on the melon of the head where sound waves are emitted. These waves help to guide it in the muddy waters of the rivers. The pink river dolphin does not have lower limbs and comes in various colours. At birth it weighs about seven kilograms and can reach up to one hundred and sixty kilos fully-grown.

In North Brazil, there are various legends and superstitions concerning the river dolphin. One says that it has magical powers: during the day, it remains in the rivers, but at dusk, it is transformed into a beautiful, elegant, white-skinned boy as polite as a gentleman. He always wears a white hat (to hide a hole at the top of his head that allows him to breathe), likes to drink, attend parties and balls, is an accomplished dancer, and tries to woo pretty girls, preferring those who dress in red clothes.

Unable to resist his charms, many young women are taken to the banks of streams and have sexual encounters with the handsome gentleman. When the day dawns, however, his spell ends: he loses his human form and returns to the rivers. According to legend, this happens daily, and the young seduced soon become pregnant. Thus the dolphin is blamed for deflorations, adulteries, and births of children whose paternity is unknown. It is said: it’s the dolphin’s child!

According to another legend, at night the animal turns into a beautiful young woman with long hair, coming out to walk around and trying to lure the boys to the rivers. If any of them decide to follow her, they will suffer a grim fate: with a cry of triumph, the enchanted young woman grabs them by the waist and pulls them into the rivers.

According to current superstitions, virgins and/or menstruating women should not travel by boat or canoe because they will be pursued by the dolphin. They can succumb to it, be taken to the bottom of the water and deflowered. In the event of shipwrecks, it is believed that the dolphin only rescues the young women, leaving the young men to fate. In turn, they say that it is forbidden to kill this animal: those who do will become cursed.

A particularly interesting aspect is the similarity between the genitalia of the dolphin and humans. It is likely that, for this reason, there are so many legends and superstitions involving this animal and people. The skin and sexual organs of the cetacean are considered by the North population as amulets for attracting love. Added to the dolphin’s skin, cut into small pieces, are white pitch, cuandu thorn, curupira thorn, tansy, mucura-caã, rosemary and chilli pepper. The mixture is dried, and then delivered to a healer who “prepares” it with aromatic herbs. Only after that is the final product put on sale in the public markets: the amulet attracts the loved one and even gives good luck in hunting and fishing.

Northerners also produce another talisman from the dolphin’s sex organs. These are roasted, reduced to powder, placed in leather bags or cloth, and sold as non-transferable amulets which, if handled by someone else, completely lose their powers of attraction. Also highly valued are the dolphin’s eyes. On the other hand, they say that you should not use the cetacean’s oil for fuel in lamps: the person who does so will go blind.

Various poets, painters, composers and musicians have used the dolphin as inspiration. Pará-born Valdemar Henrique, for example, set to music a poem by the Amazon poet Antonio Tavernard that became very popular throughout the country. Here are the lyrics:

Tajapanema chorou no terreiro,
Tajapanema chorou no terreiro,
E a virgem morena fugiu pro costeiro.

Tajapanema cried in the yard,
Tajapanema cried in the yard,
And the brunette virgin fled to the coastal.

Foi boto,sinhá,
Foi boto,sinhô,
Que veio tentar
E a moça levou.

It was boto [the dolphin], ma’am,
It was boto, sir,
Who came to try
And took the girl.

Não tarda a dançar,
Aquele doutor,
Foi boto, sinhá,
Foi boto, sinhô.

Don’t slow the dancing,
That doctor,
It was boto, ma’am,
It was boto, sir.

Tajapanema chorou no terreiro,
Tajapanema chorou no terreiro,
Quem tem filha moça é bom vigiar.

Tajapanema cried in the yard,
Tajapanema cried in the yard,
Whoever has a young daughter better be watching.

Foi boto,sinhá,
Foi boto,sinhô,
Que veio tentar
E a moça levou.

It was boto, ma’am,
It was boto, sir,
Who came to try
And took the girl.

O boto não dorme,
No fundo do rio,
Seu dom é enorme,
Quem quer que o viu,
Que diga, que informe,
Se lhe resistiu,
O boto não dorme,
No fundo do rio.

The boto does not sleep,
At the bottom of the river,
His gift is enormous,
Whoever saw him,
Tell us, inform us,
If they resisted him,
The boto does not sleep,
At the bottom of the river.


River dolphins are tame and sometimes provide a beautiful choreographic spectacle when accompanying vessels, surfacing and then diving. In the south of the country during the winter, they are used for fishing for mullet, when shoals move in search of calm waters to spawn. From their canoes, fishermen hit the water and frighten the mullet, which spread out and swim in search of shallower places. By moving around at the bottom of rivers, the cetaceans muddy the waters and further disorient the fish. Then the boats, nets and fishing nets are released, returning full of mullet.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the region’s teachers have used the legends and superstitions as metaphors to provide sex education to their students. Among other issues, information on early pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, sex and sexual health are passed on. The dolphin is one of the most important figures in Brazilian zoological mythology, having become, with its incredible power of seduction, the Don Juan in the country’s North Region.



Recife, 31 October 2006.
(Updated on 28 September 2007).
Translated by Peter Leamy, July 2016.

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how to quote this text

Source: VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Boto. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar>. Acesso em: dia  mês ano. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.