Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Jaguar Crossing

Before every trip I spend some time thinking about what I want to photograph. It might be something general - “I want to find some eagles” - but it can often be very specific. For example, if I’m going to the southwest I might imagine a cactus wren perched on a cholla, with a little backlighting to emphasize the spines of the cactus. The more I think about specific compositions, and what it might take to make them happen, the more likely I am to get the shot that I want - or at least something like it. As we all know, nature often has other plans. Patience and flexibility are always key to successful wildlife photography.

When I started thinking about the Brazilian Pantanal, and more specifically about the jaguars I hoped to see, I imagined a variety of photo scenarios. There were the dream shots, of course. A mother with her newborn kittens. Two males fighting for dominance. A jaguar stalking and killing a caiman. Or maybe a jaguar eating an anaconda eating a capybara – the turducken shot. My imagination can run wild, especially when thinking about a place I’ve never been before.

But the photo I imagined most often was a simple one: a wide view of a river, surrounded by jungle, with a jaguar swimming across in the foreground. I didn’t know how likely I was to find that scene, but I knew I was going to try.

Jaguars are the biggest cats in the Americas and the third largest in the world (only lions and tigers are bigger), and their population has declined by about 20-25% over just the past thirty years. Once common everywhere from Argentina to the southwestern United States (they were known from Monterey County, California, as recently as the early 20th Century), about half the total population now lives in Brazil, with smaller populations in Mexico and other Central and South American countries.


The Pantanal, in west-central Brazil, is the largest tropical wetland in the world, and it’s home to the largest concentration of jaguars. It also attracts an ever-growing number of wildlife photographers. Every morning and afternoon dozens of small boats head out from the village of Porto Jofre to cruise the Cuiabá and Piquirí Rivers in search of big cats hunting along the banks. Our group spent three full days here, with about seven hours per day on the water. We photographed hundreds of birds, caimans, and capybaras while keeping an eye out for jaguars.

There are plenty of jaguars here but that doesn't mean they're always easy to see or photograph. The marshy riverbanks are lined with thick vegetation, and jaguars are masters of stealth and camouflage. I estimate that only about half of our jaguar sightings resulted in usable photographs. Not that I'm complaining, of course. I'm very happy with the photos that you see on this page, and it’s a privilege just to see these magnificent animals in their habitat. But let me tell you about the one that got away ...

One afternoon we watched as a jaguar killed a big caiman no more than thirty feet from our boat, while the only thing we could see was the violent thrashing of the marsh grass and an occasional glimpse of a leg or tail, as two of the world's most powerful animals fought to the death. The caiman never really had a chance, but it made the jaguar work hard for its dinner. As a photographer it was extremely frustrating; as a naturalist it was one of the most exciting moments I’ve ever experienced.

On our second day on the river, I saw my chance for the crossing shot when a young male cautiously approached the water. After a couple of false starts it walked into the current and swam across, with nothing to obscure the view from our boat, and I was ready for it. Among the thousands of frames I shot in Brazil, this one was exactly what I had hoped for. With all the no-shows, near-misses, and other disappointments that come with wildlife photography, it’s a real joy to celebrate a success like this one.


Would you like to purchase a print? Click on the photos to see a variety of print sizes and framing options.