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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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Dolphins playing with a floating macucu seed.
With scuba not an option, however, I would have to improvise. I tried diving down and holding my breath, but it was almost impossible to get my weight belt adjusted so that I didn’t bob back to the surface—or sink to the bottom like a stone.

In the end, I stumbled onto a solution. I found a chunk of scrap metal to use as an anchor and attached it to a sturdy rope with a float on top. All I had to do now, in theory, was pull myself down the rope right to where I wanted to be and hang on tight. Amazingly enough, it worked like a charm. Within moments, dolphins were swimming right over me, and I got some of my favorite shots of the entire project, with dolphins in blood-red water, silhouetted against the blazing tropical sun.

Inevitably, there were a few problems with my jury-rigged system. Because I was using a fish-eye lens, I found I was often getting the rope, or my own flippers, in the shot. Dozens of good pictures were ruined this way, but in the end I got what I wanted.

Nearing the end of my three-week project, I felt good about what I had in the can. Yet I was still troubled that I hadn’t captured the “context” shot that I had promised to the editors. Then, on my last day, fate intervened. In the water with an energetic young boto, a careless flick of the flukes smashed my housing, flooding my camera and lens, and ending my underwater shooting for good.

With only a few hours left on that last day, I decided to go back and have one last look at my “secret” location. As soon as we arrived, I saw that, for the first time, conditions were perfect—there were plenty of dolphins around, and a thin overcast had softened the shadows. I shot for less than half an hour as dolphins passed beneath my buttressed tree—and got the picture I had been searching for the entire time. I was done.

Since then, I’ve often wondered—what if my housing hadn’t been flooded that afternoon? Chances are, I would have missed one of the most important shots of the project. That’s enough to give me sleepless nights all over again.

To see more of Kevin Schafer’s photography, visit www.kevinschafer.com.

Kevin Schafer’s Amazon Photography Gear
The underwater shooting conditions in the Amazon required Kevin Schafer to have some specialized gear. On land, Schafer used a pro-level Nikon D3 with Nikkor 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 and 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 lenses. He used a Sea&Sea DX-D200 housing for his Nikon D200 D-SLR for the aquatic work. The housing was fitted with a wide-angle dome port to accommodate Nikkor 12-24mm ƒ/4 and 10.5mm ƒ/2.8 lenses. The rugged, aluminum housing keeps the camera safe in the water, and it’s ideal for snorkeling or deeper scuba adventures. Contact: Nikon, www.nikonusa.com; Sea&Sea, www.seaandsea.com.

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