Pantanal

Saying that Brazil is incredible, shouldn’t be of surprise to anyone, but not many have heard of Pantanal, and yet it’s one of the most incredible biodiversities in the world. Fascinating insects and arachnids, amazing birds and mammals, unique amphibians, and, last but not least, the mighty alligators. It doesn’t take long to fall in love with the place and its incredible inhabitants.

Although it is located mostly in Brazil, a portion of the Pantanal complex extends to Bolivia and Paraguay, encompassing the world’s largest tropical wetland area. Existing in all types of ecosystems wetlands have an essential role in maintaining biodiversity, as well as supporting fishing and agriculture industries, and having substantial touristic value. What’s often forgotten is that wetlands, such as Pantanal, play a significant role in the hydrological cycle, increasing the water retention capacity, providing an amount of water to both humans and animals, climate stabilization and soil conservation.

Reasons enough to protect and cherish such an essential, but fragile place. And I couldn’t wait anymore to cross the ocean and venture into one of the most favorable habitats for animals on the planet.

My adventure began earlier than expected, only half an hour after I arrived at the airport, in the city of Cuiaba. We set out on land, bumping along a dirt road, and knowing I could spot some unique animals on the way, I prepared my camera with a 600mm lens and found a comfortable position on the back seat of the truck.

It was a smart move to keep my camera in hands, considering that the animals started to appear as soon as we passed the “Welcome to Pantanal” sign. The most extraordinary of all was a Cormorant spreading its wings behind thin vegetation near the road. Luckily I could shoot from the truck’s window without disturbing it, and with help from the driver, I found the perfect spot to focus on its bright eyes.

It was a delightful sighting, but I was eager to quickly find one of my primary targets, which by the way, is the most common animal to spot in Pantanal—The Caiman yacare—a species of Alligator found in the central part of South America. It can achieve 3 meters long, and even with its mouth closed it is possible to see almost every teeth in its mouth, that’s why it is also called “The Piranha Alligator.” It is quite a famous animal, and trips to Pantanal are designed just to fit the dry season, where the numbers of Caimans are abundant. Perfect scene for wildlife photographers.

The first day, with camera in hand I went for a walk. It’s easy to say that Pantanal is a paradise, but once you are there, you get stunned by the number of animals you can find in only one short walk in the woods. Among a Rufescent Tiger-Heron and a Plumbeous Ibis, I came across a couple of alligators warming themselves near the road. The prehistoric-looking creatures remained completely still, allowing me to feel confident enough to lay down close to them. I focused on those devilish eyes and began to shoot. Worth mentioning they are not aggressive animals unless they feel threatened, so as wildlife photographers is our duty to respect nature in the first place and keep a safe distance.

Also, always study the species before entering their habitat. Great gear on its own won’t do you any good, and lack of knowledge can not only put you in a risky situation but may also negatively affect the environment or even cause harm to animals. Remember—you’re a guest in their home. Behave like one!

After dinner, I joined a group for a night safari along the “Transpantaneira” road. An incredible opportunity to spot and photograph not only nocturnal animals but also unique scenes, as it was the case of a Jabiru nest that we came across. The Jabiru is a large stork with a wingspan of almost 3 meters. One of the biggest wingspan in the new world, and it’s the bird symbol of Pantanal, for the simple reason that more than 50% of the world’s Jabiru are found there. A fantastic sighting.

The nest was in a high tree, making it hard to photograph. No chick was spotted. Even with my 600mm, I couldn’t get a good portrait of the birds. So, instead, I decided to take a wide angle shoot framing the tree with the nest in the middle. I soon noticed that my photos were full of white dots, and as there were no stars in the sky that night, I realized the white dots were all mosquitos. That’s the most difficult part to handle in Pantanal.

Not being able to properly photograph during the night, due to the high number of mosquitos, we began to get back. But to our surprise, we saw a huge, dark grey tail out of a bush. “Anteater!” shouted my guide.

Majestic and unique animals, the Giant Anteater has a snout and tongue fully adapted to collect ants and termites. To tear up the termite mounds they have huge, curved claws, which can also be used for self-defense, so don’t be fooled by the cute face—they can hurt you if they want. Anteaters are not social animals, heavily avoiding contact with humans, therefore making it harder to photograph it.  We only had one chance, just a few seconds after we spotted it. They have poor vision and bad hearing, so in complete silence, we could at least take one shot, before it disappeared into the bushes again.

For those planning a visit to Pantanal, the best tip I can give you is to stay as many days as you can. The animals are there. However, the environment and the weather conditions can quickly complicate your photography goals. My biggest trouble was the intense sun during the whole day, together with the fact that most birds were always half in the shadow and half in the sun, making it difficult to obtain a correct exposure. Anyhow, I was thrilled to see what more I could get, and my first-night safari gave me a glimpse of what to expect for the following days.

The best sighting, however, was looking high up rather than among bushes. You can not imagine the feeling when, early in the morning, I heard the unmistakable shrill sound of the macaws. There they were. With big bright eyes curiously looking at me.

Photographing Hyacinth macaws was the highlight of the trip. No matter what the activities were—boat ride to spot falcons; safaris with anteaters, or walk among alligators—the Hyacinth macaws were always there. All I had to do was set my tripod and camera in a strategic place, preferably in the shadow, and wait for some interesting poses.

It was an unforgettable spectacle to witness such a fascinating and endangered bird in its natural habitat.

Only a wildlife photographer knows how much patience we need to have in the search for the perfect photo. Hours of waiting for the best action scenes and behaviors, sometimes in extreme weather conditions. Can be exhausting. However, in Pantanal, you don’t have dull moments. Between macaws, toucans, lizards, and anteaters, I often received amusing visits of Coatis, and Agoutis, foraging for food, as well as, Yellow-billed Cardinal, Southern Crested Caracara, Smooth-billed Ani, Black-collared Hawk, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Savanna Hawk, and Great Black Hawks.

From rising rivers to a dry biome, each day Pantanal brings a new, imposing and magnificent scenery. These photos were just a modest example of what to find in this fantastic part of Brazil, and even though I can hardly say I know Pantanal well enough, it only took a week to experience a great deal of its wilderness.