Trip Report: The Jaguars of Brazil’s Pantanal

(© Ian Plant) The Pantanal of Brazil is the world’s largest tropical freshwater wetland area, and is a great location to photograph a number of species including caiman, giant otters, hyacinth macaws, and many other tropical bird species. But forget all that: the Pantanal is the best place in the world to see and photograph wild jaguar! I spent a week in October 2014 exploring the Pantanal, and I absolutely fell in love with this lush ecological paradise.

Jaguars are, of course, the Pantanal’s main attraction. Normally elusive and difficult to spot, the open waterways of the Pantanal makes photographing jaguar easier than just about any other place in Central and South America. I was not disappointed, managing to photograph plenty of jaguars during my visit. In Mayan mythology, the jaguar was seen as the ruler of the Underworld. As I photographed this magnificent cat resting in the jungle, I imagined that it was guarding an entrance to a dark, secret world. I used flash to balance the exposure between the shadowed cat and the sunlit leaves. Canon 5DIII, 560mm, flash, ISO 1000, f/5.6, 1/250 second.


Of course, jaguar aren’t the only animals you’re likely to see in the Pantanal. The number of bird, mammal, and reptile species in this immense wetlands is simply staggering, and in the open marshes of the Pantanal, all this wildlife is easy to spot. This mating pair of jabiru storks put on quite a show one morning, and I had an open view of their activities. Canon 5DIII, 219mm, ISO 250, f/4, 1/400 second.


I love to get creative with exposure, so when I spotted this yacare caiman rim-lit by the harsh midday sun, I knew I had to get a shot. I intentionally underexposed the photo, exposing for the highlights and letting everything else go into shadow—leaving just a hint of the animal’s outline visible. Canon 5DIII, 376mm, ISO 100, f/9, 1/400 second.


One of my favorite landscape features of the Pantanal were the giant water lilies found in the marshes. I was lucky one evening to get a colorful sunset, the perfect backdrop for the curving arrangement of lily pads in the foreground. Canon 5DIII, 20mm, ISO 100, f/9, 0.6 seconds.


Although it didn’t rain often, stormy skies were common. One evening, a towering wall of storm clouds built up at sunset. I took this photo of my good friend and business partner, Richard Bernabe, as he set up a shot of the ominous approaching storm. Canon 5DIII, 16mm, ISO 1250, f/9, 1/25 second.


Richard and I saw (and photographed) jaguar almost every day while exploring the Porto Joffre area, the best place in the Pantanal to see jaguars. One day, we were lucky to see four! We found a pair of jaguars walking and swimming in the river, allowing us to get some interesting shots such as the one below. It was 107° Fahrenheit that day, so the jaguar wasn’t the only one panting. Canon 5DIII, 454mm, ISO 1000, f/5.6, 1/1250 second.


Another iconic species found in the Pantanal is the hyacinth macaw, which seemed to enjoy the trees on the grounds of our hotel. I photographed this talkative pair during a midday break from exploring the river looking for jaguars, using flash to balance the harsh afternoon light. Canon 5DIII, 247mm, flash, ISO 400, f/10, 1/125 second.


We saw plenty of other bird species as well, including this beautiful ringed kingfisher. I used the specular highlights in the background—sunlit leaves—to creatively frame the bird as it perched on a branch above the river. Canon 5DIII, 560mm, ISO 1250, f/5.6, 1/1000 second.


Yacare caiman were everywhere: some were small, some were big brutes that seemed ten feet long. I found this particular caiman sunning itself with its jaws open. I think maybe he was hoping a tasty photographer would come close! Canon 5DIII, 560mm, ISO 400, f/6.3, 1/1000 second.


One evening, we found a mating pair of jaguar close to the river. I got this shot as one went to the water’s edge for a quick drink. Canon 5DIII, 400mm, flash, ISO 3200, f/5.6, 1/160 second.


One afternoon, we found this crested caracara posing on a sandbar in gorgeous sunset light. Many of the animals of the Pantanal are very tolerant of people; we were able to get close enough for tight, frame-filling portraits. Canon 5DIII, 376mm, ISO 250, f/4, 1/1250 second.


Giant otters are commonly seen in the Pantanal, although they are not exactly at the top of the beauty list. Despite having faces only a mother could love and creepy bulging eyes, they make fascinating photography subjects. Their curiosity makes them easy to photograph, as they often approach the small boats used to explore the rivers and marshes. Canon 5DIII, 560mm, ISO 320, f/6.3, 1/400 second.


One evening as storm clouds built, I hopped out on a sandbar looking for something interesting to serve as a foreground in a wide-angle shot. When I found this seven-foot caiman, I quickly got to work, ready to run away just in case he decided he was hungry! When I got too close, he hissed at me and slowly slid into the water, effortlessly gliding away. At that moment, I was glad I was on shore, and not in his watery domain. Canon 5DIII, 16mm, ISO 1000, f/8, 1/30 second.


I made many amazing memories while in the Pantanal, and I’m eager to return. My encounters with jaguars, of course, stand out the most. There is something awe-inspiring about these magnificent animals that is hard to translate into words or even pictures. It is, quite simply, something everyone should experience for themselves. Canon 5DIII, 448mm, ISO 500, f/5.6, 1/800 second.


Speaking of which, I’m leading a photo tour to the Pantanal this October through Epic Destinations; photographing wild jaguars should be on everyone’s bucket list! We’re just beginning to accept registrations; our tours fill quite quickly, so if you are interested, don’t delay. For more information or to register, click here.

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