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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Chasing Dolphins Down The Amazon

National Geographic photographer Kevin Schafer takes a wild underwater adventure with a rare pod of cetaceans in South America

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Amazon River dolphins playing beneath the sun in the Ariau River, a tributary of the Rio Negro, which itself is a tributary of the Amazon River in Brazil.

Let me be clear: I’m not a scuba diver. Although I’ve happily snorkeled all my life, I’ve always shied away from “serious” diving. This begs the question: How does a nondiver end up shooting an underwater story for National Geographic? The story begins with a picture.

A few years ago, thumbing through a nature magazine, I stumbled onto a photograph of a man swimming with a wild Amazon River dolphin in the Rio Negro of Brazil. I was amazed. I had seen these animals before and knew them to be rare, secretive, even a bit mysterious. If it was possible to swim with them, I figured, it should be possible to photograph them underwater. A few weeks later, I was on my way to the Amazon to see what these dolphins were all about.

I was lucky. Over the course of the next week, I saw dolphins every day and had several opportunities to get in the water with them. It was an exhilarating experience being next to these mythical creatures, but the photography was challenging, to say the least—visibility in the Amazon is measured in inches, not feet.

By the end of the week, however, I had managed to get some stunning underwater close-ups of wild botos (as the dolphins are known in Brazil). Since only a handful of wild pictures of these rare animals existed, I knew I was onto something special.

When I got home, I presented some of the images from my scouting trip to the editors at National Geographic, proposing that these little-known freshwater dolphins might make for a compelling photo essay for the magazine. They agreed, and I soon had an assignment to go back and shoot a full story. Six months later, I was back in Brazil.

Getting the assignment was thrilling, of course, but the job had come with a clear admonition from the editors: “Show us a sense of place.” Most of the pictures I had taken on that first trip had been portraits and close-ups. Nice enough, but I knew the magazine would never run a story with just a bunch of pretty faces; they wanted context. Above all, they needed to see pictures of where these dolphins lived, the flooded forest.

When the Amazon rises during the rainy season every year, it spills over its banks and spreads through the rain forest. The dolphins follow the rising water into the trees, their hunting areas suddenly expanded. Showing the dolphins in this habitat would be the single most important image I could get. In the end, it took me three full weeks to get it right.


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