As I watched the little girl swimming the black water, a man fishing from the dock spoke to her in soft tones. His line went tight, and with one pull of his hand a fluttering fish hit the dock. Whack! The man’s bucket was filling fast, each fish put still by a club to the head. I walked over to look at the catch. What the … ! Piranhas, all piranhas!
I looked from the bucket to the girl treading water, who was smiling at me as though I was the first of my kind she’d ever seen. Maybe I was. I looked back into the bucket. The piranha at the top of the heap bent skyward its head and tail. A gash of its teeth, a gasp … the death knell. This deep in the Bolivian jungle, do I point out the obvious danger to the girl?
Whack! What do I know?
The story we all know of the piranha is one of a ravenous finned beast. With razor teeth it rips flesh, bones and soul from any creature to dip a toe into its waters. They attack in packs, feasting until nothing remains but a soup of blood. It’s quite a story.
Tell it to the little girl swimming in the honey hole of piranha. I imagine she’d widen her smile and, in the friendly spirit of jungle folk, splash some water at us.
As with the case of most westerners, I had been fed a lot of bull about the piranha. So, over the course of this trip and on six other Amazonia rivers, the realities and myths of the piranha came known to me. I learned it can be indeed a vicious fish but rarely the monster depicted in the media.
In fact, a happy piranha is naturally shy, wary of the intruder swimming nearby. If the piranha were a monster, imagine the life of the capybara, tapir, anaconda, any of the jungle creatures including the caiman who swim regularly in its watery domain. How could these mammals and reptiles coexist even a moment with the killer fish with a voracious appetite for meat?
Here’s where things can go bad for those who enter the realm of the piranha.
- During South America’s wet season when rivers flow high and strong, life for all creatures living in and near them is robust and healthy. The piranha benefits from a surplus of fish, insects, carcasses and, for some piranha species, plants. In high water the piranha has room to roam, searching for food. When the rivers subside to low levels during the dry season, the piranha is concentrated in pools, where in large numbers they’re held captive between stretches of shallow water. Concentrated, each piranha must compete for a limited food supply. The piranha becomes stressed and famished, and all bets are off as it loses its inhibitions in competition for food. In these dire conditions, the piranha turns to the only food available: each other. In a cannibalistic state, the monster is unleashed.
- Detecting a bleeding wound or a menstrual flow can trigger a piranha to strike, even in the best conditions.
- The piranha is attracted by activity. Swimming in waters inhabited by piranhas is a common occurrence across South America. Lethal attacks from piranha are rare but lively play and splashing can trigger individual bites and nips. On the Guapore River, my partner watched a shoal of piranhas sweep around me in knee-deep water where I bathed. I saw them, too, as flickering shadows. This was near the end of a 33-day river trip, and for some strange reason I had no concern. I finished my bath without a bite. However, I knew to slow my cleansing or I’d be put on the menu.
The little girl? She’s real, probably around the age of ten when I witnessed her swimming in a tributary of the Mamoré River in Bolivia. In Trinidad, Bolivia, I hopped aboard a rickety boat delivering supplies to remote river towns. Its terminus was Guajara-Mirim, Brazil, where I would continue my overland journey and the boat would turn back for Trinidad, through piranha country where the locals eat piranhas in meals. They’re delicious.