Friday, August 13, 2010

The Pantanal, Brazil: Monkeys, Tarantulas and Giant Otters

A capuchin monkey checking us out from the trees, Pantanal, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)

That night after dinner, about twelve of us piled into the open pickup truck that the guides had outfitted with long benches and roll bars and headed out for our Pantanal "night safari". Our guide sat on top of the cab with a large search light scanning the ground in front of us and the branches of the trees for interesting wildlife as we drove along. All of a sudden, he yelled down through the cab window for the driver to stop, who immediately obeyed, slamming on his brakes and sending us all tumbling forward. "Shhhhhhhh!!!!" the guide hissed at us. "Over there, over there!" We all looked in the direction of the search light, but couldn't see a thing except shadows and outlines of trees in the darkness. We looked at him questioningly. "Look for a set of small green reflective eyes!" We all peered into the night until someone yelled "I see them!" Down at the base of the tree where he was pointing, sure enough, there were a tiny pair of emerald green eyes shining up at us.

Our "night safari" tarantula spotting (photo by Luis Bastardo)

 The guide quickly swung the search light around and we clearly saw the owner of the eyes: a large male tarantula, running our way. Our guide told us that they like to drop from the trees onto people below, then yelled something else at the driver and we took off in a cloud of dust, much to every one's relief. I think he was kidding, but just to be on the safe side, I quickly borrowed Luis' baseball cap. Along the way, he told us to also look for glowing red eyes (caiman, a type of alligator) and white eyes (marsh deer or capybaras, the world's largest rodent) and we were able to spot several of each animal. The air smelled intensely of jasmine and our driver jumped out of the cab to cut some fragrant night-blooming waterlilies for us, which made up somewhat for scaring the bejesus out of us with the attacking tarantula.


   One of our constant swimming companions on our river tubing expedition (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The next morning, we walked down to the river for our riverboat and rubber inner tube rafting expedition. The guide pointed out different birds and animals: comorants catching small fish, caiman, toucansRinged Kingfishers, anhingas and what he described as Giant Otters. He told us that these otters are nothing like the cute little otters that we were used to up north, that swam on their backs and cracked open oyster shells so tourists could snap adorable photos of them. "Oh no, these otters are ferocious, large otters who can grow to six feet long, with long sharp teeth who attack swimmers for no discernible reason", he said smilingly, "Okay, who's ready for the rubber tube rafting?" When nobody responded, he looked back into the boat to find ten wide-eyed, pale passengers moving away from the edge of the boat. Luis, as always, who has a fear of absolutely nothing, volunteered to go first (also the guide was speaking English, so Luis might not have gotten the full gist of "long, sharp fangs attached to psychotic man-eating water mammal"). 

Our clearly evil guide sending us off knowingly to an imminent giant otter attack

Since I hadn't planned on being a widow so soon, I resignedly volunteered to go next; perhaps I could fight off the attacking otters by whacking them over the head with my inner tube. Others decided to bravely join us and we floated and paddled in front of the boat in a tight group, keeping an eye on the caimans sunning themselves on the banks and the toothy piranhas coming up to the surface to investigate. Our guide had told us not to move our hands or feet much so as not to atract the attention of the river carnivores. Just when we were beginning to relax, our guide and those who opted to (sensibly) stay on the boat starting screaming and waving their hands at the group in the water. I couldn't hear what they were yelling, but it sounded like "Ought to, Ought to..." "I ought to what?" No, wait, it was "Otter! Otter!". A couple of giant otters watching us from the shore had decided to take action and had begun swimming rapidly toward us. When they dove under the boat and re-emerged on the other side, baring their teeth, everyone in the boat panicked and starting hauling us aboard, tubes and all. I always thought it would be romantic to die in a kayak going over Angel Falls or in the fangs of a Great White Shark, but had never imagined that my obituary would read "Remains of Clueless Floating Tourist Found in the Stomach of a Giant Otter". How humiliating.  

A toucan watching our progress (photo by Luis Bastardo)


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