Lisa G Saw
The Pantanal, in Brazil, is the largest wetland in the world and the best place to see jaguars. That means our group of 12 took to the waters of the Sao Laurenco River on speed boats in search of these amazing big cats - the apex predator in these parts. Three boats were at our disposal for the duration of our stay, deftly operated by our experienced drivers, who know these channels and tributaries like the back of their hand. On one boat was Paul Goldstein, a professional photographer who’s passionate, driven and enthusiastic and also our group leader. On another boat was our local guide Juan – or Juanito as Paul called him, on account of his small stature. His expertise and knowledge of the area was amazing, always imparted to us with a smile and great enthusiasm. We would switch around the boats over the duration of our stay to each get an equal opportunity to benefit from Juan’s knowledge, Paul’s expertise or to escape his criticism and endless jokes.
Each of our drivers, Marcello, Berto and Gonzalo, spoke very little English, but we got by sufficiently with excitable outbursts and plenty of pointing whenever we saw any wildlife we wanted to photograph. When we were ready to move on again a simple ‘okay’ sufficed. The system worked well. I suspect the lack of communication skills was a blessing for Marcello, who was always Paul’s driver (and has been for many years, so he knows what to expect), as he had to put up with Paul’s outbursts and frustrated rants when the boat wasn’t perfectly lined up for the shot he wanted, a bit like a spoilt child. Many a time I saw Marcello shake his head at him. Perhaps he understands more than he can speak! But always, by the end of the boat ride, Paul would show his appreciation with smiles, a handshake and even a hug on those extra special days.
This was an adventure, not a holiday! These kinds of trips are not for those who like to relax, sleep in and enjoy breakfast at a reasonable hour, and by this I mean any time after 7am. Many people would probably call us photography enthusiasts crazy for getting up at some ungodly hour. But, we’ll do what we need to it if means making the most of the best light and enjoying the quiet waters of the river alone, wildlife spotting, whilst most ‘normal’ people are still fast asleep, even if that wake up call is 4.30 in the morning - no, it’s not a misprint! We’d be out on the water by 5.30am, every day, powering down the river.
The drivers did an amazing job steering the boat and keeping their eyes peeled for any signs of jaguar movement, essentially watching for twitching grass and branches. We would help too when we weren’t busy swapping notes on camera settings, previous trips with Paul or comments about the man himself. He’s certainly an acquired taste, one of a kind – at least I hope so! He’s been referred to as the ‘Marmite Man’ and I can’t think of a better analogy. I always learn so much on these trips, but probably more from my fellow travellers than from the man himself. His approach isn’t one of positive encouragement, nor is he a nurturer of talent. That’s probably why I’d get so nervous whenever it was my turn to be in his boat, dreading the moment I did something wrong, like under exposing a ridiculous amount, on occasion having my ISO settings inexcusably high or simply treading on his bare feet in my walking shoes - twice! I was also told off for being too excited on my first boat trip with Paul, for pointing at any new wildlife I saw. Whilst he’s done this trip many times, it was hard for me to control my excitement. I was instructed to only point if I’d seen a jaguar, ocelot, puma or giant river otter. Capybaras, caiman and the multitude of birds were not exciting enough to tempt Paul to deviate from our mission – jaguars! We’d have to wait until we were on one of the other boats for that freedom. However, I ought to point out that despite Paul’s fiery temperament and critical comments, he has been known to praise too! If you’re lucky enough to be on the receiving end, you know you’re doing well! Put it this way, I choose to travel with him because I know I’ll get amazing wildlife opportunities and he’ll challenge me to be a better photographer.
One of the advantages of getting onto the river so early each day was the more comfortable air temperature – usually in the 20s. By mid-morning, though, it was in the 30s! Wildlife spotting most of the hours of the day in that kind of heat is pretty intense! The only respite from the scorching sun was a canopy we’d put up when it got too much or when we were speeding along fast enough to feel the breeze against our skin. When we whizzed around the bends, I’d feel the spray of water on my hand as I grabbed the side of the boat, only it wasn’t refreshingly cool, but warm! More often than not the boat would be going along at speed in response to a jaguar sighting. The three boats would split up, going down different tributaries to increase our chances of one. The drivers were in radio communication with each other, so, when the crackle of it was heard followed by some barely audible Portugese, like a man talking with marbles in his mouth, we’d hold our breath with excitement. If the finger was raised skywards we knew we were in luck. At full throttle, we’d power our way to the location of the sighting, given away by the collection of boats already assembled. I’d find myself sitting more upright in my seat in anticipation, whilst double checking my settings. The excited atmosphere on the boat was palpable. Game on!
We went on a total of 13 boat rides and in that time not only did we have a 100% record of jaguar sightings, often seeing more than one on each ride, but also we identified 13 different ones. Both statistics were a first for Paul! I never imagined we’d be that lucky! The jaguars can be differentiated from each other by their unique markings on their face and rosettes. To name just a few there was Scarface, Mick Jagger, Ginger, the pregnant one and the lazy one, though many of them could have that nickname. They would often be found sleeping or lying down in the shade. In that heat, who could blame them! Often, we’d sit and wait too, in the hopes we’d see them eventually move on, walking along the bank of the river, clambering down to the waterline to drink, or simply skirting the riverside through the luscious green hyacinth that was growing in abundance at the water’s edge or trying to weave through the tangled web of vines and undergrowth of trees. If we were really lucky, we’d get to see them swim too.
The waiting game was sometimes very long - a good couple of hours one time in which we had to endure endless jokes from Paul! You’ve got to be patient! Sometimes the resting jaguar would get up and I’d get all excited, thinking it was on the move. I’d fire off a few rounds of photos only to find it simply changing position and lying back down again. Such a tease! The tough times were when they would sleep in the dark shadows of the trees, obscured by a multitude of branches and leaves, preventing us from getting a clear or interesting shot, which happened with annoying regularity. Whether you got a good photo often depended on whereabouts in the boat you were sitting as it edged forward one way then drifted back another. Plus, there was the added challenge of photographing from the water, made doubly hard when another boat came to join the party, bringing with it a surge of waves that meant I have random images of branches and part of a jaguar!
Though all the sightings were special, three were particularly interesting. The first of these was when we spotted two jaguars together, brothers, tolerating each other’s presence, which wouldn’t have happened had they been mature adults competing for females. We saw these two on several occasions. One was definitely bigger and more confident than the other, who was often sheepishly a few steps behind him or skulking on higher ground behind the vegetation on the banks. At one point the guides and drivers realised the two males wanted to cross the river and the 13 or so boats were blocking the way. Everyone backed off, creating a passage for them to safely swim through. The confident one went first followed a little distance behind by his brother. When he was halfway across he turned to check on him, who’d actually chickened out and had started heading back to the riverside. The dominant one just looked at him. No sound was uttered, but somehow the second one found some confidence and tried again. It was a special moment to witness, the bond between the two.
The next afternoon I thought I was going to witness a kill! A group of six capybaras jumped into the river when they heard a jaguar approaching them. They can’t have been more than 10 metres apart. Capybaras are the largest rodents in the world and look like a giant guinea pig (their closest relatives) with the colouring of a beaver. Their eyes, ears and nose are located high on their large heads so they can still use their senses when they’re immersed in water. They would be a delicious dinner for a hungry jaguar! Three of them made it safely across but the other three, including a youngster, were experiencing more difficulty. The little one didn’t have the strength to swim against the current in the water and drifted downstream within a few metres of the bank where the jaguar was sitting, her eyes fixed on the helpless creature. One of the adult capybaras on the far side kept making a deep sounding call, alerting the swimming adults of the danger. These two let themselves drift downstream towards the little one and the three of them eventually made it across safely too. This particular jaguar we suspected was pregnant and probably the only reason why she didn’t jump into the water when tempted with such an easy meal. An adult male would have had no hesitation since they can jump 10 metres! I was rather glad that little capybara survived to live another day.
The third exciting event happened on the following day. A female we’d seen sleeping in the morning, was on the move in the afternoon. We followed her movements for over an hour, as she progressed along the river, realising that she was heading directly towards of another sleeping female. There was a second group of boats assembled close to this jaguar, which had alerted us. When the two big cats were within 100m of each other, our boat moved ahead in anticipation of their encounter. It soon became clear the female we’d been following was the dominant one. As she neared the other, she slowed down, lowered her body, and crept forward with her eyes locked on the second jaguar. This one, having realised another was approaching, remained on the ground and rolled over onto her back in a submissive way. There was some hissing and baring of teeth but no fighting or contact, though it was very difficult to see as they were in the shadows of the trees. For a few moments, the two females actually lay down with their heads next to each other before the dominant one moved on. It turned out, they were in fact sisters. We continued to track her as she walked away but eventually we lost sight of her. We knew she hadn’t gone far and as it turned out, she’d back tracked towards her sister and the two of them were sitting in trees not much more than 50 metres apart. Some of our group, in another boat, actually got to witness the dominant walk up the tree, quite high up, which is very unusual behaviour, but apparently not for these siblings. Seeing a jaguar hug a tree is quite a sight!
As mentioned, we weren’t the only boats on the river. During the peak season, you might expect to be amongst 30 boats crowding the waterways, trying to catch sight of the jaguars and to photograph them. We found it bad enough sharing the river with 10-12 others – though, of course, with more eyes on the banks, it increases your chances of a sighting. For the most part, good etiquette was employed as the boats carefully manoeuvred around each other, jostling for a good position, anticipating the big cat’s movements. But, it wasn’t always the case! Some boats would block others right at the point when you were about to take your photo. Then, there’d be those people nearer the front who’d stand up so you couldn’t see at all. It was very frustrating and Paul usually had a few things to say on these occasions! With so many boats on the water, the best experience seeing the jaguars was to be the first to spot one. You’d get a few moments alone with it before the other boats powered in. That was exactly what happened on my first morning, with my first and favourite jaguar sighting, when I was on Paul’s boat. We hadn’t even been on the river much more than an hour when Marcello spotted a young female in good health walking along the bank. For five minutes, which felt like fifteen, we excitedly watched as she came down to the water for a drink, then waded through it for a while, slowly, very stealth like, then she began to walk along a sandy bank in the stunning warm morning light. It was just our boat and her. A wild beautiful jaguar. It was magical, peaceful – aside from the cameras clicking away – and the memory of that wonderful moment will stay with me forever.
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Jaguars in the Pantanal