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The Story Behind the Photograph

The Spectacled Caimen

spectacled caimen
In addition to using the RAW converter and some Photoshop to address the dark tail and the
sky, I also used Nik's Viveza 2 to enhance detail, color, and sharpness. It made a huge difference.

Read our Pantanal Jaguar Brochure for 2012
Read our Jaguar Trip Report for 2011

Well, I hope this story doesn't motivate someone to have their hand bitten off so I have a disclaimer: Don't try this yourself! It may be dangerous!

We were in Brazil's Pantanal, the largest wetland in the Americas and perhaps the world, an area that is like the Everglades on steroids. There are birds everywhere, with herons, rails, and kingfishers simply abundant. Imagine getting within frame-filling distance of a Kingfisher. If you have tried doing so in the US you know how wary the Belted Kingfisher is, but in the Pantanal the birds are so accustomed to people (or boats) that a close approach is easy.

caimenIn the Pantanal the ecological equivalent of the American Alligator is the Spectacled Caimen, a member of the crocodilian class that also includes alligators, Indian gavials or gharials, and crocodiles. Caimens grow to about eight feet in length, but with their stout and sturdy bodies they seem much larger than that. Caimens are abundant, and at night if you should shine a flash light across a river or pond the water lights up with their glowing orange-red eyes. By day, some of the river banks are covered with caimens, many of which will be basking with their mouths wide open to regulate body temperature or perhaps to help control oral parasites.

Although most caimens simply basked in the sun on a shoreline, we did see some interesting behavior. Twice we encountered caimens in the process of gulping down the sucker-like catfish common in the slow water streams. The caimen would practically juggle the fish, tossing it high and snatching it again, each time crunching the skull and bones a bit more as it worked to get the fish in the right position to swallow the mashed fish. Watching this, one could truly appreciate the speed that a caimen can move.

We've seen real speed a couple of times when we watched a Jaguar hunting a caimen. Once, we were sure the jaguar would catch a large caimen lying on the shoreline but when the jaguar blasted out from under cover, covering the twenty feet or so to the caimen, this resting caimen suddenly exploded in a splashing movement that, in a flash, had the caimen beneath the water and safe from the jaguar, which followed, crashing into the river but coming up empty handed. On our last day, another caimen fired out of the undergrowth and into the river so fast that I thought it was an otter darting into the water. It was fast and I only had a side-long view, so don't think I can't tell the difference!

The other very interesting behavior involved males that would roar and vibrate their bodies, doing so so rapidly that the water over their back would dance like a fountain, sparkling in the early morning light. Somehow, and I'm not sure how, the caimen's body vibrates so rapidly that the water flies, and, interestingly, just before the water flies we could hear, or practically feel, a dull throbbing roar through the boat. It proceeded the 'fountain' by a second or so, and it was an eerie sound. Caimens also roar, and many times our participants were misled into thinking that they were hearing a jaguar's roar. The 'fountain display' was always proceeded by a distinctive pose, where the caimen would elevate both its head and tail above the water, forming a flattened big V. Their backs would be hidden, or just barely above the water line, but as they were about to display their backs would always drop lower. Seconds later, the display began.

caimen display

Many of these caimens are extremely habituated to boats. I almost wrote 'tame' but tameness and habituation are two different things, and a tame animal might be safe and friendly, while a habituated animal is simply tolerant or oblivious of humans, but could still be very dangerous.

At any rate, several times we had occasion to drift our boat in close as we photographed a kingfisher or heron or any number of other species. Often, when caimens lay in the hyacinths, we were not even aware that one was literally right beside the boat. One of those times, as we moved in close to shore I decided to try a wide-angle shot, placing my camera right above the water surface.

To do so I draped myself over the front of the boat, my arm hanging down with the camera grasped securely in hand. I preset the exposure, basing my manual exposure with spot metering on the hyacinths nearby. Focus was a potential issue. Normally I use a single focusing point but if that point was directed the wrong way I'd risk having the caimen completely out of focus. So I used all 45 AF points, the 'ring of fire' of Canon, so that the focusing sensor would pick up the nearest object -- the caimen. To keep the camera level I simply watched that the bottom of the camera was almost on the water, at both sides, so that the camera was as close to level as I could manage. Sometimes the camera would dip a bit and I'd get a bit of water on the lens hood, but the camera stayed dry. I fired multiple shots, turning my wrist slightly left and right so that I'd get the caimen within view, and I used my 16-35 f2.8 lens set at 16mm to exaggerate the perspective.

caimenLater, I tried the shot with another caimen that was facing me and just a little further away. To get the right image size I used my 28-300mm zoom, set to 35mm, and I did the same procedure of 'spraying' a shot, firing on High Speed motor drive as I rotated my wrist to cover the area. I couldn't look through the viewfinder, so 'spraying' helped to insure that I'd get something.

When I was finished with that series and pulled up my camera another caimen appeared, bumping the tail of my model and pushing it off its perch. That caimen then swam off. But, its sudden appearance made me wonder about the sanity of doing this method in deep water (as I was doing this time) where a caimen just might come up unexpectedly and wish to take a bite. Caimens are not normally very aggressive so I was not too concerned -- I'd never try this with a true croc.

Still, that's how the shot was made. Just don't try this yourself, I don't want to call you lefty!



Past Stories Behind the Photograph

The Raccoon

The Pileated Woodpecker

The Striking Rattlesnake

The Pink Salmon