Balbina’s Manatee Research Center


The water is smooth as glass, there is no wind when suddenly we see circles appearing on the surface. Something is emerging from the depths and disappears again. Grey shapes move around in the grey water.

Caymans are the first we can identify. Then, to the left, elegant curves emerge and disappear: giant otters. Right ahead there is more movement. Tails of dolphins, while the squarish heads coming up for air must be manatees. We’re stunned.

Otters, Caimans, Dolphins, Manatees

The day already started so beautifully with kingfishers, weaver birds and bem-te-vis waking us. It was still cool outside: a bit cloudy and the sun was still hiding behind the hill. As we ate breakfast, cicadas were singing monotonously as background music on the forested hill.

When the sun rose above the hill, its beams reached the far distance of the lake, lighting up what once was a forest but now are dead, white poles in the water due to the construction of this reservoir.

Feeding manatees

We take out the binoculars and enjoy the spectacle. On and on it goes. Above the water, below the water, a snout that emerges to get air, then submerges again. The distinct sound of water sprouting like botos-do-cor-rosa (type of freshwater dolphin) do. Curves, bends, bows, round and round, on and on. They must be having a grand breakfast down there.

Suddenly they’re gone and the water is smooth like a mirror again. Breakfast for aquatic animals is over.

Getting to the Manatee Research Center in Balbina

We drive to the nearby water Mammal Research Center.

“It’s closed,” the guard informs us.
“What!”I hold my breath for a while, then lean outside my window and explain that we wanted to visit this center and that in order to prepare for this visit I went to the tourist office in Presidente Figueiredo to get a confirmation that it would be open. That visiting this center means driving 160 kms. And that it’s impossible that after all this trouble, we should not be allowed to enter.

The guard starts an elaborate story about rules and regulations, about who and what according to procedures and what have you. Bottom line: he can’t open the gate.

Entendeo?” he finishes his story. “Do you understand?”

In Brazil, the question “entendeo?” can only be answered with one word: “Yes” (like in English”How are you” basically has to be followed by “fine” without giving the question any further thought). Here  you never answer “Entendeo” with “No”, let alone, “No, I don’t understand one bit of this bureaucracy.” 

However, this is what we do, in unison. “Não. Não entendemos nada de isso.”

The guard stumbles back and barely manages to stay on his feet.

“Not only do we not understand. We’re furious,” we add. Again, in unison.

This stuns the guard to the extent that he starts calling someone. But he only has a radio and can’t reach the right people. The gate stays closed. He has done his best, which is all he can do.

“We’ll be back,” we say and drive to the nearby town of Balbina, determined to get a permit.

In Brazil the police are generally our friends. And so they are in Balbina. Not much later Coen returns to the car. “I got permission for the research center. The veterinarian Daniela will show us around.”

Really, at times Coen works miracles. It never ceases to amaze me.

When we arrive at the research center we never see Daniela but meet Fabricio, an intern, but never mind. A nice student with a quiet demeanor who informs us we’ll get a quick tour. However, when we leave more than an hour later, we don’t feel we have been rushed at all. Maybe we haven’t seen half of it, who knows.

Visiting Balbina’s Manatee Research Center

The Aquatic Mammal Preservation and Research Center (CPPMA) has been working on a rescue program for Amazon Manatees (Trichechus inunguis) since 1992. Fabricio tells us that major enterprises like Electrobras have to support or maintain some sort of environmental program (like Petrobras supports Brazil’s sea turtle programs), hence this center.

The manatees are the center’s main focus and the tracajá turtles are second. Other than that it cares for botos (freshwater dolphins), giant otters, otters and other freshwater turtles.

We walk up to enormous tanks that are temporary or permanent homes for manatees that were brought in wounded or sick. In many cases they can be returned to their natural habitat, sometimes not. There are different tanks for females, males and the young ones (3-4 years). In a small tank, inside the center, we see a baby manatee of 5 months old, without a mother. It is raised by the researchers, who feed it some 3 bottles of milk per day as well as vegetables.

One of the large tanks is empty, that of the males. The researchers are taking blood samples (hence the closure of the park for 2 days). They don’t like to be photographed while doing this. I can see why. Dozens of onlookers will look down from above and you can just imagine the scenes:

Hey, sit next to the manatee! I want to take a picture!”

Look at that man, how he’s pulling at that manatee. He is using too much force. He’s abusing the animals!

So we keep our distance, keep our mouths shut and just watch and enjoy.

Travel Guides for Brazil

(click on the images to look inside)

Insight Guides – Brazil

Lonely Planet Phrasebook & Dictionary – Brazilian Portuguese

Lonely Planet – Brazil

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