Chasing Dolphins Down The Amazon

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

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.


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.”


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.


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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