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Caiman Hunt!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

This is about all you ever see of a wild caiman--a pair of eyes looking at you, then slowly submerging.

After my experience with the giant anteater, I was feeling iffy about one of the activities booked for us on the night of our arrival at Caiman House. We would hunt down a caiman and measure and collect data from it. Well, obviously we faint-hearted writers and artists and photographers wouldn't do it; researchers and assistants would do it while we watched and tried to take pictures in the pitch-black night. I came very close to saying no, no thank you, I would rather see a caiman minding its own business. I fought with myself all through dinner, then realized that if I was ever going to learn more about caimans, this would be the time. You have to live life as big as you can, or not much happens.

They pronounce it Kye-mon (rhymes with sky).

Most of us think of caimans as "baby alligators," and many of us probably remember when they were offered as new hatchlings in pet shops. God, what a horrible thing that was, but I remember friends who kept small, sickly tan "baby alligators" in little fishtanks in their homes. File under WHAT WERE WE THINKING? The black caiman is not a baby alligator. It is a huge beast, a crocodilian to be reckoned with. Not as dangerous as a croc or an alligator, but not to be messed with, either. And thank goodness they're no longer being exploited for the pet (slow death in captivity) trade. Although I still see quite a few, stuffed with straw and shellacked, lined up on store shelves, shaking maracas and playing marimbas in the Latin American tourist traps. Bleh.

What was happening here was a caiman capture. Researchers, armed with long catchpoles and nooses, big hanging scales and measuring devices, would attempt to noose an adult caiman, determine if they'd seen it before (using a scale-clipping code that identifies the animal), weigh, measure and sex it, then release it. We were warned that, in order to tire the animal out and render it tractable, they would fight it as they would a game fish for quite some time before attempting to handle it.

It turns out that this is the best way to deal with large caimans. It's not safe to tranquilize the animal because we don't know much about dosages, and because there are a lot of other caimans around looking to climb the caiman social ladder, releasing a caiman that's groggy could result in drowning, maiming and death for the study animal. And it's not safe to try to handle a fresh, snappy caiman, so this is the method they've arrived at as safest both for animal and researchers.

So, tired from a full day of Karanambu and river birding and hiking to Caiman house, we piled into boats and went looking for a big caiman to catch. I was already fretting because I didn't know how I was going to photograph the action in total darkness. I shouldn't have worried. First look at the beast, hauled from the deep.Oh my gosh. Can it really be that big?
Agggh! Look at that THING! It is HUMONGOUS!

I mentioned fighting the animal to play its strength out. I had plenty of time during the tussle to experiment with different ISO's and apertures, flash or no flash. My favorite pictures were made in ambient torch light (we in the boat had flashlights trained on the action). I love this slow-shutter shot.
When the caiman would go quiet, I could get some that were almost sharp. Was it a crocodilian, or a fire-breathing dragon they had? Oh, oh oh, these are for you, Timmo.

It was as if her rage shone from her jaws.

The lizard wranglers had made an unfortunate catch, looping the noose around the caiman's upper jaw instead of around the whole head or neck. So much of the maneuvering was trying to get its mouth closed and another noose around the jaws. That would be key to handling it safely. I really like this shot. The flash is illuminating the scene just enough to freeze the action, but not enough to burn out the colors and chiaroscuro.

The caiman is surrendering.I have to go lie down now. More anon.


Wow Julie, that's a serious beastie!! My understanding is that Black Caiman are among the most dangerous of all crocodillians in terms of predation on humans (in part because they live in areas where people are forced to approach and use their water).

Thank you, Tai. I've had a hard time finding much of substance about black caimans. I've seen just the converse of your statement: that they have fewer attacks on humans because they live in such remote areas. Which is it? I can tell you that this animal was handled with immense respect for its power and lethal bite. Pretty much all I know about black caimans was what I learned this night I'll never forget.

That last sentence was not English. I apologize. I've had a rough couple of days--no heat in the house, running space heaters between orchids and macaw and kids' bedrooms. Solved the issue myself, no thanks to the gas company. Poo on them. Furnace is on. Life is good.

And how many martinis did you drink before you went on this particular outing???

Divine, divine, divine. Not only that, but Animal Planet has found their replacement for Jeff Corwin! Keep up these posts and you are destined for the big screen. I understand these things grow to the size of a pick-up truck. Wow! What do they eat to stay that big?

Your motion shot is pure modern art. You are the Jutisse of the nature photography world. Or is that Zicasso? Either way, you wield the camera like a true master!

I am impressed. Yours, Timonet

Great pictures, Julie!
It's not just anybody who can keep her head (from getting bitten off!)AND snap great pictures (of a once-in-a-lifetime encounter) in the dark!

Glad you're toasty now.

Look at you messin with dangerous reptilians!
I'd never do that.

Love this trip. No down time that I can see!

Zick - I'm fairly sure my understanding on the subject of BC attacks came from Brady Barr on natgeo so make of that what you will.

fc - LOL!

ps no heat for your orchids - you must have been so stressed!

I can't help but laugh. I'm exhausted, too!

Amazing creature. Huge. That first photo needs music... You are a brave soul.

I'm glad your furnace is keeping you toasty.

Amazing but I think I'll stick to my back yard. I'm a woos.

I was not thinking that they get THAT big! ACK! I think I need to lie down too!

Chiaroscuro. Now THAT's a word! Sent me to my dictionary :O). Thanks. I love words.
Your son must have loved the pictures and stories of the caiman. Were those VOLUNTEERS handling that creature?

Ya know somehow I'm reminded (for those who are old enough) of Johnny Carson's take-off of Marlon Perkins in the old "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom": 'And now while Jim (Fowler) slogs into the murky bloodsucking swamp to wrestle the 10-foot alligator I'll stand back here in the reeds and snap pictures of all the fun.'
(...of course you couldn't get me near those reeds)

Oh no, you di'int. You are so NOT going to leave us hanging all weekend, waiting for the continuation of the caiman story. Are you?

I'm on pins and needles!

~Kathi, noting that since you are typing, you probably did not try to pet the caiman

Kathi, you know the Science Chimp better than that, on both scores. Pet the beast, and keep 'em hangin'!

Toes work fine with a MacAlly keyboard.

That looks like dangerous work. I've always admired the wildlife biologists for the crazy hours they have to keep to do their work.

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