Divernet


We had been travelling for two days on the Rio Negro from Manaus, in Brazil, into the Amazon rainforest. The five of us on the expedition sat in a small motorised canoe while Mo, the captain and owner, drove us into a small stream. He had a bright spotlight connected to a century-old car battery and he was aiming it at the shoreline in search of wildlife. About 40 dots of iridescent light appeared.
Wow, look, he whispered. A lot of caimans out tonight! It was a wonderful sight: all those menacing eyes. We quietly moved towards them but the engine scared them off and one after another the crocodilian animals splashed hurriedly into the water.

Fast food attack
We pushed on into the backwater. With no moon and no light from human habitation nearby it was pitch dark. We followed Mos light with childlike anticipation.
Then suddenly the evenings calm was broken and all hell let loose. Fish of all kinds began jumping out of the water around us. The light had frightened them and, because the stream was shallow, they jumped up, probably fearing an attack by a predator. Mo was going nuts with the light, trying to follow their leaps.
Michael Goulding, an authority on the waters of the Amazon, had chosen the stream that was to be our diving destination. He let out a yelp.
Shit! Ive just been hit on the head by a fish!
I turned round to see the side of his head covered with fish scales. Then I felt a thump on my back from another panicked fish. Next Antonio, at the back of the boat, screamed. Mo turned the light on him. Antonio was holding a 1.5m, 5kg peacock bass. He wasnt injured, and we all yelped and laughed in our excitement.
Then, as quickly as it had gone crazy, it became calm again. Silence. All the activity had taken place in a matter of minutes.
We returned to our mother ship and investigated the bottom of the canoe; it held 43 fish of all shapes and sizes. Michael identified them before they were given to the cook. Several dinners had jumped into the canoe!

Skin care
We had two more days and 200 miles left on the Negro before reaching our destination: a 100-mile-long clearwater stream free from malaria and packed with every conceivable species of Amazon fish. My goal was to photograph the stream and as many of its inhabitants as possible.
The day after our mad evening activity we reached the point where the Rio Negro and Rio Branco meet. To burn off steam we jumped from the top of the boat, thundering into the water.
Negro water is very similar to rainwater. It is extremely poor in dissolved nutrients because the geology it drains has impoverished soils; this, combined with its low acidity, makes the water very soft. A chemist might call it slightly contaminated distilled water. My skin never felt softer nor my camera housings cleaner. After four days, the 400-mile trip from Manaus was over, and we awoke at the mouth of our target stream, owned by one family for years.
They make their living collecting small fish and selling them to the aquarium trade, primarily for the American market. After a meeting with the father to allow us passage, we took off on our two-hour trek upstream. I imagined what it must have been like for the Spaniard Francisco de Orellano, who led the first European expedition here in 1542. According to a scribe they came upon a river that was as black as ink, and for this reason we gave it the name Rio Negro.
The name was retained by the Portuguese, who claimed the large tributary as part of their kingdom. Michael said that apart from the otter being nearly extinct, and the turtles less plentiful, the Negro is pretty much the same now as it was then, and its middle regions are still some of the least explored places on earth.

Racing piranhas
I had arrived at a place where only 10 people, with a BBC wildlife expedition, had ever been under water. My daydreaming was abruptly interrupted by a torrential downpour, and we went over the side to dive the riverbed.
I found myself in tea-coloured water, at about 26C, ranging from a pale yellow-orange brown near the surface to a rich dark brown at the bottom of the deep-water pools. There was no blue anywhere.
There was a 1.5-knot current, so I moved to the sides to look for some of the 200 species of fish that live here. Rosy and rummy-nosed tetras and uaru cichlids swam en masse. I spotted pencilfish, which often swim and feed in a diagonal, head-up position. In between the tree roots there were some apistogrammas, the most diverse of the cichlid group in the Negro. I had seen these and others in aquariums back home, and immediately decided that I preferred to see them in the wild.
Then a school of 30-40 piranha came hurtling towards me, disappeared, and a minute later returned. They seemed to think they were on a racetrack. Apparently they are very hyper and nervous, and this is their daily routine.

Caiman stare-out
I continued to cruise and explore. Green stream grass and arum tree roots covered the sides of the stream, which varied in width from 1-10m, with a soft, sandy bottom. Dropping into one of the deeper pools under a ledge, I found a loricariid catfish, with its suctorial mouth, under a dead log - a favourite hang-out.
When I finally surfaced it was almost dark. I heard someone yelling from the canoe, which had been following me:
Caiman! Caiman!
Antonio pointed into a dense patch of trees by the bank of the stream.
How big
About seven feet, Michael said.
The caiman was so well camouflaged I couldnt see it at first, but once I did I focused on its left eye, which was just above the surface. I felt it was imperative to keep constant eye contact. The problem was that I had to shuffle my body and the bulky camera housing through the shallows and mud. But the caiman didnt blink or move an inch.
Six feet away now - time to stick my head in the water. I had done such a good job at mud-churning that I couldnt see a bloody thing. This made me feel incredibly vulnerable. I had no choice but to wait for the sediment to settle. After five minutes I moved a little closer: four feet now, and finally I saw its foot resting on a tree branch.
Time to go to work. Six frames later, there was a big splash, a skipped heartbeat and the caiman was gone. But it had moved only 10ft away. I went back to the canoe, changed film, took off my 3mm suit to be negatively buoyant, and took another 12 frames. Eventually I decided to go for broke, feeling more confident now, as I closed in on its immensely powerful hind leg.
I felt so strangely at ease that I touched its leg twice. The caiman still didnt move, so I went for a head shot. But the old boy had had enough and took off for good. It was so dark I had barely been able to focus and frame the subject; it was only days later, back at the lab, that I discovered everything had worked out.
Why had the caiman been so still Michael explained that they need the warmth of the sun to keep up their energy levels, and because it had been raining all day, it was lethargic. This little episode reaffirmed my belief that there is always a reason for everything, even a full day of rain.
The other item Michael casually mentioned was that while I was shooting, he was checking out Antonios and Reginaldos T-shirts to see which one would make the better tourniquet if I was attacked!

Shock tactics
On our second day at the stream, we spotted an electric eel. Packing about 300 volts, it can zap you as much as a foot away through the water, especially when you are holding a metal camera housing.
Only slightly intimidated, I slipped into the water. I had taken only four frames before it decided to come at me. I tried to reverse in a hurry - a difficult manoeuvre under water - but fortunately the eel turned away about 9in from me.
Then I came across a bunch of tetra neon cardinals, the most coveted of freshwater aquarium fish. We even spotted a giant river turtle, a rare sight these days, since the Negro population has been over-exploited.
About a days journey on the way back from the stream, while we were listening to the squirrel monkeys screaming, and trying to see them through binoculars, we spotted a couple of pink dolphins, which seemed to be engaged in their mating ritual.
We desperately tried to be quiet, but that was hard in a large boat. We got close enough to see them with binoculars but not close enough for photographs.
In the three days at the stream I had been in the water for 25 hours and shot the same amount of film that I normally use on a nine-day trip. I had looked through a window into the richest freshwater ecosystem in the world.
  • For more details about Amazon expeditions contact Mad Dog Expeditions, 132 East 82nd Street, New York, NY 10028, USA. Tel 212-744-6763. Fax 212-744-6568. E-mail: info@mad-dog.net.