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Rumble in the jungle with killer piranha

A visitor to the Amazon is bent on finding out whether the saw-toothed fish live up to their fearsome reputation.

November 22, 2005|Joe Robinson | Times Staff Writer

THE current on the jungle river flowed calmer than the one pouring down my belly in the wilting heat. But I knew the stillness belied unspeakable horrors lurking below.

My fellow expeditionaries and I had canoed into the heart of beastly darkness -- up a tributary of the Amazon's mighty Rio Negro. A brown-collared hawk sailed from the canopy on one side of the mocha-colored waterway to the clump of forest on the other, when suddenly fish were flying too.

"Piranha!" announced the captain.

Some cracked the surface with a devious sneak peek, leaving a ripple like the splash of a pebble, while others leapt like dolphins. The mood of the troops grew sober. None of us had figured on an aerial attack.

I remembered my Brazilian friend Angela's reaction when I told her I was going piranha fishing. "Pee-raan-yaa! I would not go near pee-raan-yaa!" she yelped. "No way! No way!" Angela lived in Sao Paulo, a city of crushing millions rife with dangers. That this trip would leave one of its hardened citizens shuddering only confirmed the mortal risk of rumbling with these finned Freddy Krugers.

Thanks to Hollywood, she, like everyone else on the planet, had one scenario in mind -- 1) some luckless soul winds up in the river, 2) a drop of blood turns piranhas psycho, 3) they rip flesh like industrial-strength Hoovers, 4) the victim disappears beneath a boiling red froth, and 5) seconds later, the skeleton floats to the surface. It's a demise that has made the piranha one of the most feared predators in the global imagination, right up there with sharks and Chucky.

Luckily, I was going into battle with a crack team. Expedition leader Mike, a former member of the Guyanese army, had tangled with the enemy for years. He barked orders like the captain he had been. Even wildlife observations -- "That's a kingfisher!" -- were said with enough force to make you want to reply, "Yes, sir!"

The team members, recruited from an eccentric jungle lodge on stilts where I was staying, made up in toughness for their lack of experience. There was the Russian couple and their 12-year-old son, a stout lad and absolutely fearless. There was Junko, a twentysomething 98-pound Japanese tourist and her husband. Tough as steel, that's what I thought when I saw her. Dennis and Mark had run a ballet studio in Miami. It was going to be a bad day to be a piranha.

After a run farther upriver, the driver turned off the engine, and we coasted to a placid stretch of water. Mike warned us not to crowd one side of the two-person-wide canoe or we could tip over, something we agreed made a lot of sense.

To underscore the consequences, he explained what makes piranha choppers so brutally effective: interlocking teeth, serrated for maximum slicing and dicing. The triangular top teeth clamp down squarely into gaps between the lower teeth, a design not made for tofu. Powerful jaws complete the arsenal, snapping quickly and continuously, allowing piranhas to carve off flesh like a buzz saw.

Piranhas haunt the major river basins of South America -- from the Amazon and Orinoco in the north to the Paraguay in the middle of the continent -- and do most of their damage in swarms. Not all the several dozen species are as dangerous as the black piranha, the largest of the breed, or the red piranha, the sociopath I was after. Like sharks, they can smell blood miles away.

Mike handed each of us a pole with a hooked line, to which we attached the chilling bait: a cube of raw meat. If I'd had some noodles, I could have made stroganoff with the pile of bait sizzling on the griddle of a railing. We tossed our lines overboard and waited.

The Russian kid struck first, jerking one of the carnivores out of the water and, in his excitement, touching off panic as he swung the still-snapping fish inches past my face on course for Junko, who, along with others, fled her post in terror to the other side of the boat, causing a near-capsizing on the port side.

"Get back to the other side -- no, not everyone!" screamed the captain, as the group scrambled starboard, tipping the boat again.

Mike grabbed the dangling piranha from the kid's line. With its red-orange belly and puny size -- red piranhas top out at three pounds -- the fish looked less like a serial killer than an overgrown goldfish, except for the teeth. The captain unhooked the fish, took a stalk of reed and touched the piranha's lips with it. In a nanosecond, its jaws snapped and razor teeth sheared straight through it.

After numerous tugs of the line followed by empty hooks, my line bent next. I yanked upward, wrenching a wriggling piranha out of the water. I swung it to the boat for a closer look. The gap-toothed bite was an orthodontist's nightmare, and only its mother could love that protruding lower lip.

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