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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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A boto, or Amazon River dolphin, in the wilds of the Rio Negro in Brazil.
Preplanning The Photo Trip
But before I could even get on the plane to Brazil, there was a lot of work to do. There were hundreds of details to arrange—hiring assistants, renting boats, checking water levels, etc. Photography is a creative process, of course, but it’s also about problem-solving; I had a visual story to tell, and my job was to figure out how to accomplish it.

No one goes out on a Geographic assignment just hoping to stumble onto some pretty images; it’s essential to have a pretty good idea of what you want beforehand. I had the advantage of having already scouted the dolphin location on my own, which gave me a good sense of the conditions I would face and what pictures might, or might not, be possible.

Still, I needed a target-photo list. On the left side of a sheet of paper, I put down the subjects I considered essential. Top of the list: botos swimming in the forest. Next came botos feeding, mating, fighting, jumping... (Who am I kidding? The truth is, I would be thrilled to get them doing anything, but it’s important to aim high.)

On the right side of the page, still blank, was how to get those pictures; it was that right-hand column that gave me sleepless nights. Failure wasn’t an option, especially if I ever wanted to be given another assignment.

Then there was the equipment. What would I need to bring along to make all these pictures possible? I was going to be a long way from a camera store, and having everything I needed could make all the difference.

First of all, I was going to need two complete camera systems, one for topside and one for underwater. On my first trip, a playful dolphin had smashed my underwater housing with its tail, flooding my camera, so I had brought a brand-new, and sturdier, one for the assignment. But what if met up with another boisterous boto? At $3,500 each, I couldn’t afford two housings, but I packed up everything else in duplicate—extra cameras, lenses, flashes.

Then there were the electronics—the batteries, chargers, memory cards, card readers, backup drives, backup-backup drives—all of it, twice. (One of the great myths of digital photography is that, without film, we have less stuff to carry around these days. Don’t believe it for a second.)

To help with arrangements on the ground, I hired a German-born guide living in Brazil, fluent in both English and Portuguese, whom I had met there the year before. Before I arrived, Christoph went about hiring a boat, a driver, a young assistant and—with the editors’ words ringing loudly in my ear—arranging for a series of platforms to be built in the flooded forest from which I hoped to photograph “dolphins in the trees.”


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