Did anyone tell the Amazon swimmer about the candirú?

In its preview of Slovenian marathon swimmer Martin Strel’s upcoming attempt to swim the entire length of the Amazon river, The International Herald Tribune notes:

Experts say the Amazon is a fertile area for infectious diseases, such as malaria, cholera, yellow fever, river blindness and elephantiasis. Among the predators Strel could face are anaconda snakes, piranha, crocodiles and the Amazon bull shark.

They left out the candirú, the Amazon’s most notorious fish, and the only known vertebrate to parasitize humans. It’s a fish that has no enemies, and is more feared than the piranha. Particularly by men who are foolhardy enough to urinate in the river while skinnydipping. Attracted to the smell, Vandellia cirrhosa will follow the urine’s path, swim into the penis, and, with it’s umbrella-like spines, lodge itself inside the urethra. Removal is grim.

I first heard about this critter and it’s needle-like teeth in Redmond O’Hanlon’s 1989 book, In Trouble Again: A Journey Between the Orinoco and the Amazon, when he described an anti-candiru device he had fashioned before embarking on his journey, essentially a jockstrap with a tea strainer dangling from its end. Once the the litte fish enters, O’Hanlon wrote,

“Nothing can be done. The pain, apparently, is spectacular. You must get to a hospital before your bladder bursts; you must ask a surgeon to cut off your penis.”

The thing is also relentless.

The candiru has a voracious appetite for blood and will parasitize fish, mammals, and humans. One scientist, while holding a candiru, accidently let it enter a small cut on his hand. It could be seen writhing under the skin towards the vein.

[Here’s an account from The Straight Dope of one successful removal; the fish had died, making the procedure easier and slightly less painful.]

The 52-year-old Strel is no stranger to swimming incredible distances. He’s been listed in the Guiness Book of World Records for several long swims of the ‘longest-ever’ variety: the Danube, the Mississippi, and most recently, China’s Yangtze. Setting out on Feb. 1 from Atalaya, Peru, his working plan is to swim up to 90 kilometres per 12 hour day, eventually reaching the mouth of the river in Belem, Brazil, 70 days and 5,430 kms (3,375 miles) later. No word on whether he borrowed any gear from O’Hanlon.

The official journey website is here, where you learn, among other things:

As a young boy, I was beaten a lot by my parents and schoolmasters. This no doubt contributed greatly to my ability to ignore pain and endure…

His personal website is here, while Wikipedia has a good synopsis of his feats to date.

public domain drawing by Robbie N. Cada



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