National Geographic Explorer Dr. Fernando Trujillo has spent more than 30 years researching the river dolphins of South America.
From childhood, Trujillo was always connected to animals and in frequent contact with nature. His grandfather would take him to the Orinoco River, where his curiosity for wildlife was first ignited. But it was his maiden voyage to the small village of Puerto Nariño, on the banks of the Amazon River in Colombia, that inspired Trujillo’s romantic approach to studying river dolphins.
“I was in love with the dolphins. Even now, 35 years after, it’s amazing to find dolphins in the jungle,” Trujillo says. “The dolphins are a key species for people to create empathy and to understand all the problems that the Amazon is facing.”
Trujillo describes the river dolphins as friendly creatures who are infinitely curious. Swimming through freshwater streams along the Amazon River, with pale-pink backs arched as they maneuver through the water, they often look upon Trujillo with what he describes as a human-like stare. Under threat due to overfishing, development, and deforestation, the river dolphins are in need of protection.
More than just a researcher, he has embedded himself into the surrounding community. He works alongside both local and Indigenous communities as well as with governments to implement change through policy.
His deep connection with the river dolphins earned Trujillo the nickname omacha, which translates to “pink dolphin.” In Tikuna Indigenous culture, omacha is a dolphin who can transform into a man.
Like the rivers he frequents in his decades-long study of dolphins, Trujillo’s journey has been anything but linear. Even during his most recent research, he broke his shoulder while tagging dolphins. But years before, it was another strenuous moment that changed the trajectory of Trujillo’s career as a conservationist.
“When I was working in the Amazon in the beginning, I was talking a lot with the fisherman about the importance of the dolphins,” Trujillo recalls. “One day, the fisherman came to me and said to me they accidentally trapped two dolphins.”
They made a swift attempt to rescue the mother dolphin and her calf but unfortunately were not able to. Trujillo recalls feeling heartbroken when he found the calf dead and resolved to build a permanent base in the Amazon so he could more quickly foster a relationship with the area.
“This moment changed my life in many ways, Trujillo says. “It created a very strong bond with the region.”
In Puerto Nariño, Trujillo recalls being enamored of the Indigenous peoples' belief that river dolphins are sacred. His encounters with both river dolphins and the surrounding communities inspire him to approach conservation from multiple angles. He has also participated in the development of agreements regarding fishing regulations and toxins in aquatic systems and wetlands, but it takes a special kind of energy.
“The connection I have with the field, with the people, with the animals—it’s the energy I really need to support all bureaucracy and all the difficulties to fight for the conservation of the Amazon,” Trujillo says. “It’s a strong connection.”
Trujillo is a founding member of the Fundación Omacha, inspired by his nickname. Through sustainability and dolphin-friendly practices, Fundación Omacha encourages economic alternatives to protect dolphins and other aquatic life.
As a marine biologist-turned-conservationist, Trujillo believes in the power of solution-based science. “We need to combine scientific research with actions,” Trujillo says. “We need to look for solutions now.”
Fernando Trujillo is participating in the National Geographic Society Perpetual Planet Amazon Expedition—a two-year series of scientific studies spanning the entire Amazon River Basin, supported by Rolex as part of its Perpetual Planet initiative. Learn more about the expedition.
ABOUT THE WRITER
For the National Geographic Society: Brittany Maher is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia, who specializes in literary journalism. She believes in the connective power of storytelling.