Jaguars and Wildlife of Brazil’s Pantanal 2013 Trip(s) Report

By Joe Van Os on Oct 22, 2013

My “search image” for jaguars had not yet “kicked-in” on our first boat ride up the Cuiabá River. We left our hotel just after 6 AM and the caffeine from our breakfast coffee had barely started to get me focused. Within 10 or 15 minutes from the hotel dock our boatman called “jaguar!” and pointed to the edge of the riverbank. I saw nothing! But I did hear the sounds of a loud splash and churning murky water amongst the dead branches of a partially submerged tree that had fallen over into the river. Several long seconds passed—I still saw nothing! The guide kept pointing. Then I caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a huge spotted snake momentarily swirling up to the surface and then quickly vanishing.

In the next instant, a beautiful, albeit soggy, female jaguar came bounding up from the depths—water flying in all directions, long snake tail dripping—and scrambled up onto the dead tree branches. She turned and looked us over, allowing less than two short minutes of photography before she disappeared into the forest.

She had attempted to catch a Yacare caiman—the favorite jaguar prey species in the Pantanal—but her first grab had missed the caiman’s head. While completely underwater she relaxed her grip to get a repositioned killing bite to the skull, but the caiman managed to escape. No breakfast for the cat this morning—but a great start on our first boat trip!

Another memorable jaguar moment (of many) took place during one of our morning “pit stops.” (That breakfast coffee…) To accomplish the rest break on the river (you may have wondered) we bring the boat up to a riverside sandbank. We disembark and, with a mixed gender group, the women go behind a large sand pile for privacy once it is deemed safe. Men just wander down the bank a bit.

In this case I was one of three guys in a boat along with the driver. We stopped for a break. I was the only one with an iron bladder (I know, TMI) and didn’t need the stop so I hopped out of the boat with my camera and a short lens to take photos of jaguar and capybara footprints in the sand. While the three guys were otherwise occupied I happened to look up the hill. To my surprise I saw a jaguar’s face immediately above us—staring down. I snapped two or three shots and the cat disappeared. Well, you’ve never seen four guys get back into a boat so quickly! You can see this image in the accompanying slide show. It is the shot of a small cat face peering out of a large wall of greenery. After I returned home, during post-processing, I was amazed to find a second jaguar hidden in the brush—also staring at us! It is immediately to the left of the visible cat in the image.

Our two Pantanal/Jaguar trips this year were both equally amazing and very different. This year was a test for me to compare all the facilities available to photograph jaguars on the Cuiabá River. I’ll explain the basic differences and then get into some of the other photogenic highlights of the two trips.

Trip Number One started during an unusual Brazilian cold snap when an Antarctic air mass pushed northward from the South Atlantic. Morning temperatures were in the low 50s Fahrenheit. Snow was recorded at higher elevations in southern Brazil! It was almost immediately obvious that colder weather made for active wildlife and we had lots of opportunities to photograph a variety foraging birds around our eco lodges on the Transpantaneira (the long primitive road through the northern Pantanal). Our first group of photographers enjoyed an astonishing 26 jaguar sightings (several jaguars multiple times over four days).

Based in a spacious and comfortable hotel, Tour One used three speedboats (with three photographers per boat) to ply the Cuiabá River system. Our boats were capable of attaining speeds close to 50 miles per hour—which allowed us to arrive at jaguar sighting locations quickly and added a thrilling river boat ride as well. (The speedy boat rides in these Brazilian wildlands are alone worth the trip!) The downside of such speed on the river in the chill of the early morning—especially in this cold snap—was the wind chill. At 50 mph the fast rides made it seemingly as cold as being in Antarctica in November! Though we advise participants to bring a warm fleece jacket as part of our gear recommendations, I had on 3 t-shirts, 2 cotton short-sleeved shirts and the fleece in layers—and I was still cold as we raced down the river to a radioed jaguar location!

By the time Trip Number Two started, the cold weather had passed and “normal for August” midday temperatures ranged in the high 90s to 100 degrees Fahrenheit—and, fortunately, not very humid. (Cruising on the river, and occasionally in the shade, those temperatures are really not at all as uncomfortable as they might sound.) Trip Two participants stayed in a floating hotel (on a barge) tied to the riverbank in the heart of jaguar country. Rooms on the boat are very small and there is a constant drone of the attached power generator 24/7. A new “Jaguar Suites” addition was being built and it had arrived, still under construction, and was being added to the facility during our visit. When completed it will be a welcome upscale addition to the “Flotel.” Using two larger boats, not quite as fast as the boats used on Trip One, with five photographers per boat, we had 16 jaguar sightings (several jaguars multiple times—some of these same animals were also photographed on Trip One.)

In the final analysis our future tours will stay at the land-based hotel as I believe that would be the preference of most of our trip participants. Our hotel, like the Flotel, is within the territories of several habituated jaguars and, at both locations with very good luck, you can be with jaguars soon after your boat departs. The rooms in the hotel are almost four times the size of many of the older rooms on the Flotel—with no generator noise. The walls are “thin” in the Flotel and you can hear the occupants of adjacent rooms. At the land-based hotel there places to walk and photograph with an accessible resident flock of hyacinth macaws and a variety of other birds. Plus the hotel has an adjacent lake with Victoria amazonica water lilies (the giant ones) that offer good shooting if you want to photograph, take a walk or jog a bit during the lunch break. Meals served at both locations are equally good, both with choices that include tasty Brazilian fare.

Before and after our days of Jaguar shooting—trips in 2014 and beyond include 5 full days shooting in jaguar territory—we photographed birds and other wildlife at highly productive eco lodges (huge cattle ranches converted to wildlife viewing tourism) along the Transpantaneira. Here are great opportunities to photograph toco toucans, hyacinth macaws, numerous birds of prey, including hundreds of caracaras. Throngs of herons, egrets, storks, spoonbills and numerous other interesting species of photogenic land birds are found in the varied habitats on these big ranches.

During our drives back and forth to Porto Jofre—gateway to jaguar territory—we passed literally thousands of Yacare caimans. As many as 10 million Yacare live in the Pantanal, comprising the largest single crocodilian population on Earth! Virtually every waterhole along our drive was ringed with wall-to-wall caimans during our dry season visits. This year was a great year for caiman photography and they were among the most frequently photographed subjects on the two trips.

It was also a big year for storks with literally thousands of American woodstorks, jabiru and a smattering of maguari storks concentrated in spectacular numbers in locations where fish were trapped in drying ponds along the Transpantaneira. In these locations the water boiled with fish—and the birds used the fishes’ dire predicament to their full advantage.

After the cold snap passed, many green iguanas came down from the trees to lay their eggs in the soft sandbanks along the river. The cold weather had been a prohibiting factor to egg laying. The ensuing warm weather opened the floodgates to lots of iguanas digging nests and the eggs were soon being incubated by the sun beating down and heating the sand-buried eggs. They offered excellent photo opportunities.

This year also featured pleasing great giant otter shots as several families with pups were found near known den locations along the various tributaries that flow into the Cuiabá. One family of five captured a giant catfish—probably weighing 15 pounds or more—that they “wolfed” down, leaving only its huge head.

We had exceptional opportunities while photographing birds and we collectively shot around 70 species during these trips. One rarity was a king vulture—which resident trip leader Paulo Boute said he hadn’t seen in the Pantanal for more than ten years—that swooped down on a sandbank to get a drink just in front of one of our boats.