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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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Botos swimming through the trees of a flooded forest alongside the Amazonian coast.
On The Amazon
I had scheduled my trip to coincide with the end of the rainy season, when the river was at its highest level and when the weather was likely to be stable and sunny (did I mention hot and humid?). As soon as I arrived, Christoph and I checked all of the platforms he had built and some shooting locations he had scouted. They looked great, and I was anxious to get to work.

Within a day or two, however, I began to see some problems. We had placed some of our platforms in nice, scenic locations, but they turned out not to be on the regular routes that the dolphins traveled. Others had the opposite problem—plenty of dolphins, but an ugly background. We had to find something better. In the end, I got my boat driver to spend a couple of days paddling around the forest in a small dugout canoe, looking for locations that could fill both functions. Meanwhile, I started working on other shots.

One day, my driver returned to the platform, full of excitement, eager to show me something he had found. After I had climbed into his canoe, he paddled back into the forest, under branches and around huge, flooded trees. I couldn’t see anything that was going to work for what I had in mind. Then, suddenly, we broke out into an opening. It was perfect—a natural gap in the forest where dolphins took a short cut beneath a huge buttressed tree. It had everything—scenery and dolphins.

Now all we needed was the light. But every time we went there for the next two weeks, the sun was too intense, causing deep shadows to cross the “target area.” I wanted clouds in the worst way, but every day it was relentlessly sunny. I began to think this was never going to work and concentrated on shooting underwater.

Our field area was on a small tributary of the Rio Negro—the Black River— named for its dark, tannin-rich water. Visibility underwater was poor, little more than about 36 inches, but even this was far better than other parts of the Amazon, where sediment can reduce visibility to zero.
Still, the animals were curious and often came within a few inches, and I was able to photograph some extraordinary portraits of these strange, but endearing creatures.

I’ve been in the water before with marine dolphins, animals that are all about speed and grace. Botos, in contrast, move more slowly, as if considering their every move. What’s more, because their vertebrae aren’t fused like their oceanic cousins, botos can turn and twist with unexpected dexterity, very handy when navigating the dense, flooded jungle that’s their seasonal home.

Perhaps the strangest thing about them is their use of sonar. These animals must find their food, and each other, in water that’s sometimes completely opaque. Their eyes, therefore, are nearly useless, and are tiny in relation to their body size. When a boto approaches you underwater, it does so slowly, waving its head back and forth, using sound waves to create a picture of who or what you are.

After a few days, I began to think I had gotten all the pictures I could get at the surface. It occurred to me, though, that there might be other, very different pictures deeper down. But looking below me, all I saw was dark and gloom—dark dolphins against dark water. Then it occurred to me that if I could find a way to get below them, I might be able to shoot upward, photographing them against the sky, a very different point of view.


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