Nature photography, political rants, and Martyman laughs from the ten-time award-winning author of "Cool Creatures, Hot Planet," "Endangered Edens," and "Time Is Irreverent."

Swimming with Piranhas

Swimming with Piranhas

Marty’s photo of the day #1499. It’s Book Excerpts Week, featuring an excerpt from my first book, “Cool Creatures, Hot Planet: Exploring the Seven Continents,” and a corresponding photo (that may or may not be from the book):


“The water feels great!” shouted Devon, looking up at Deb and me from the river. “You two should try it.”

Of course, cooling off in the river was possible without shape shifting into a dolphin—as long as we didn’t mind swimming with piranhas and electric eels. At that moment, an old man was sitting nearby on the riverbank catching piranhas, and earlier someone had seen an electric eel under the dock.

Frankly, the aquatic animals were the least of my worries. As you know from the previous chapter, I don’t get along well with water. To me, jumping off the M/N Tucunare into a deep, moderately fast river just seemed like a great way for an unplanned visit to Encante.

“I’m gonna take a dip,” said Deb. “Marty, are you joining me?”

I hesitated a moment to allow my male ego to kick in, then answered, “Of course, dear.”

Deb hurried down to the sleeping berth to change into her swimsuit. I decided the shorts I was wearing would work just fine. A few minutes later, we met up at the edge of the upper deck.

“Getting out of the water is a bit tricky,” said Devon, who was now drying himself off. “Pull yourself up at the far side of the dock, but be careful. It’s slippery.”

“Here I go!” yelled Deb. She pinched her nose between her thumb and forefinger and launched herself into the air.


She surfaced, flicked the hair out of her eyes, and looked up at me with a smile. “The water feels wonderful!”

“Good thing you plugged your nose, or there wouldn’t be any water left for the fish.”

“Ha-ha! Are you gonna jump or just stand there and make nose jokes?”

“I’m coming.”

The drop from the deck was about twelve feet. I hit the water with perfect form.


All right, perfect is an overstatement. But I was straight enough to plummet deeper than anticipated, and that I didn’t touch bottom was a surprise. In all, my jump was anticlimactic. The eel didn’t shock me, the piranhas didn’t skeletonize me, and the current didn’t carry me to Encante—I didn’t even swallow my usual gallon of water.

I practiced some swim strokes and enjoyed the cool river. When I looked up, Deb was back on the upper deck.

“Watch out below. I’m jumping again—and this time I’m not plugging my nose!”

“Nooooooooooo!” I yelled. “Don’t do it, Deb! You’ll kill the piranhas!”

“And the boat!” screamed Devon. “It’ll smash to smithereens on the river bottom!”

“Aaaaaahhhhh!” shrieked the old man as he grabbed his fishing pole and sprinted from the riverbank.


Okay, Deb says I have to tell you I made up the part about her second jump. But just as I exaggerated the dimensions of my wife’s beautiful, perfectly formed schnoz, most reports of man-eating piranhas are also blown out of proportion. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged provides a good case in point, calling piranhas “remarkable for their voracity, in spite of their small size often attacking and inflicting dangerous wounds upon men and large animals.”

We had been swimming with red piranhas, the most notorious piranha species. Had they lived up to Webster’s definition of often, you might have just finished reading a very gory section describing Devon’s leap into the river.

Piranhas, in fact, rarely attack anything bigger than themselves. Some species subsist mostly on fruit, and red piranhas prefer to eat the fins of other fish. Yes, on rare occasions piranhas have attacked people, but such attacks are usually limited to times of stress, when water level and food supplies are low. A little common sense can go a long way toward avoiding an attack. Again, I’ll use my wife to illustrate. In the morning, she’s like a piranha in low water—probably safe to approach, but why push your luck? Just wait an hour or so and be virtually guaranteed of encountering a pleasant person. The same concept applies to piranhas. Rather than pushing your luck, just wait until their habitat returns to normal and be virtually guaranteed of encountering pleasant fish.

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