Chris Lukhaup was part of a team from Dennerle that recently explored Brazil, discovering fish, plants and breathtaking underwater scenery in an area they describe as the â€˜cradle of aquatics'. Be prepared to be inspired â€” and more than a little bit jealous!
Our trip to Brazil might not have been a religious pilgrimage as such, but the strip of land around the small town of Bonito in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul might rightfully be described as an aquatic place of pilgrimage, with our journey there an act of devotion and reverence towards the magical powers of nature that are so present and inspiring in this incredible region.
This place might even be considered the cradle of aquatics, and for fishkeepers and adventurers — and everyone else who yearns to experience nature — this trip is a milestone.
We had been informed that the best time to go exploring in Bonito and the surrounding area was December— before the travelling season began.
We entrusted this journey to the knowledgeable hands of the Indian Marcello Yndio and his Swiss wife Mirjam who run Explore Panatal. They arranged the trip for us in a way that allowed us to see, photograph and film as much as possible over ten days.
In addition to their ample knowledge of the area, the pair have established all-important relations with the local authorities and owners of the places we planned to visit.
I left for Brazil two days before Stefan ‘Plantahunter’ Hummel and Max Dennerle, son of the company founder Ludwig Dennerle. At that time, there were heavy snowfalls in Germany and I was very lucky, as after my plane had taken off all flights for the rest of the day had to be cancelled.
Unfortunately the bad weather delayed Stefan and Max, who had to spend a number of days at various European airports. To top it all off, Max’s luggage got lost in transit...
However, they eventually arrived and due to the fact that we had lost several days, Marcello re-organised our trip with a new and even more crowded schedule.
Our first trip was to Rio da Prata, the Silver River. These fascinating headwaters are strictly supervised and no one is allowed to go into the water on their own. You can only stay in one place for a few minutes, and you must not stand on the bottom to avoid stirring up any sediment — which would be detrimental to the habitat.
You can only float without touching fish or plants and a guide is always present to ensure you don’t violate these rules.
If you don’t have your own underwater camera you can borrow one there and then, together with any snorkeling equipment. Ecotourism is a real alternative to the vast soy farms and seemingly endless cattle pastures that are now so common to this region.
Our permit allowed us to stay in the source area for a full two days.
Silver River’s true assets are in its beautiful aquatic plants and innumerous large and small fish, which are not shy at all.
Some smaller characins, probably Cheirodon kriegi, were quite bold and kept biting our lips. We could see groups of blackish grey Pacu, Colossoma sp., gliding across the gleaming sandy areas, and quite a few Ancistrus sp., which seem to live under every other root.
Some large characins, Brycon hilarii, locally called Piraputanga, and which are exclusively plant eaters, sat in the current, waiting for the monkeys in the trees above the river to drop in some of their leftover food.
The Dorado (Salminus brasiliensis) pictured above is a large predator characin that calmly circles its territory and just opens its mouth to get a meal. They can grow to 1m/39”, adult specimens weighing up to 30 kg/66 lb. Their strong jaws are lined with sharp, large-dimensioned teeth, and their favourite prey is Prochilodus lineatus, which we found in large numbers in this habitat.
A group of Leporinus friderici dipped their noses into the detritus on the ground, stirring up micro-organisms, accompanied by a school of Hyphessobrycon eques. Their red colouration was especially stunning.
A Crenichichla vittata had staked out its territory under a tree trunk, defending it against everything that wandered close.
The dominant plant in these waters is Star grass (Heteranthera zosterifolia), which belongs to the family Pontederiaceae.
This plant needs lots of light. It can be found in vast stretches of several km in Rio da Prata, and even at depths of 2m/6.5’ its growth is dense and is a lush green. In some places we even found the emerged form with its light blue flowers. However, the strong current made photographing it difficult.
Especially attractive were the sharp-edged limestone formations we floated past, and which are below the waterline in a short stretch of the river. You have to be very careful here, as the sharp edges would not just slice through your wetsuit!
Besides Star grass, we also saw Hydrocotyle verticillata and Helanthium bolivianum. In a small pond beside the river we found a beautiful moss. Like so many other rivers in that region, the water of Rio da Prata is high in carbonates, which makes this moss suitable for hard water.
Only a few kilometres from Rio da Prata lies Anaconda river, Rio Succuri. During the trip there we passed many pasture grounds with zebus, an Indian cattle species. Unfortunately, deforestation in this region increases open space so benefitting the interests of the cattle barons.
The spring source of Rio Succuri is in the middle of one of these pastures. Marcello procured a special permit for us so we could to spend all day here. The water was only 40-70cm/16-28” deep and crystal clear.
Stefan found at least ten different plant species here and especially impressive were large patches of Potamogeton illinoensis. In just a few square metres there were many plants we know well in the hobby, plus new ones like Bacopa australis.
In some places, the underwater scenery looked as though it had been moulded by human hands. Large beautiful ‘meadows’ were formed by Hydrocotyle verticillata and H. leucocephala. The latter, in its emerged form, could also be found in the undergrowth around the water. Here, Parrots feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum), was of a striking brownish red, due to plentiful light.
Contrasting with its delicate whorls of leaves, there were large-leaved Echinodorus macrophyllus and the Chain sword (Helanthium bolivianum) – well-known in the hobby for a long time under the name of E. bolivianus.
After around 50m/165’ in the shallow water of the source, the rivulet had quite a strong current. We put on our snorkels and floated downriver effortlessly. We could see great patches of Illinois pondweed (Potamogeton illinoensis) and their yellowish-brown leaves shimmered in the sunlight — absolutely fascinating.
After a few minutes, the water depth increased, in some places to 2-3m/6.5-10’. Here we found bright red Nymphaea gardneriana together with huge Pontederia parviflora. They prefer the bank areas, but grow also in deeper waters. However, the leaves always grow above the waterline.
We also found some dark green shoots of Stonewort algae (Chara rusbyana). At first glance this plant appears something like a small hornwort, but it’s actually a primitive water plant that belongs to the family of green algae. There were also small patches of Heteranthera zosterifolia and Gymnocoronis spilanthoides.
The fish fauna here was quite similar to that of Rio da Prata, but the population densities were a lot lower.
We didn’t see an anaconda on this trip, but we did see one of the very rare giant otters. It was at least 1.2m/4’ long, and as soon as it had emerged from the water it disappeared again.
The baylike headwaters of Rio Baía Bonita is paradise for the Echinodorus enthusiast. In order to get there, you have to leave the official reserve and walk around 800m/880 yards through dense forests, accompanied by a guide. Marcelo had organised a guide who was with us for the entire day.
When we arrived at the pool the view took our breath away. There were huge patches of lush E. macrophyllus at a water depth of 1.5-2m/5-6.6’. When snorkeling you sometimes touch the tips of their leaves as these plants grow really long. The most recent leaves are a beautiful red to pink. Unfortunately, due to their size, these plants are not suitable for a normal tank.
Between the Echinodorus patches, there are beautiful groups of Stonewort algae (Chara rusbyana), its dark green contrasting beautifully with the bright colours of the Echinodorus.
At other places in the bay we again found compact groups of Helanthium bolivianus. These stay comparatively small and reproduce by runners. They are great for the fore or middle ground of an aquarium. The reddish colour, as well as the relatively broad leaf blades (or laminae), have so far only been observed in nature.
Towards the open side of the bay we could feel the current towards the rivulet. We floated past huge patches of Senegal tea plant (Gymnocoronis spilanthoides), some up to 2m/6-6’ high and an incredible sight. There were also beautiful meadows of Potamogeton illinoensis interspersed with individual large water-plantains.
The manifold moss patches below and above the waterline on rocks and stones were also impressive.
Aquascapers would really have fun here – one natural layout following the other.
The fish fauna was dominated by the ever-present Brycon hilarii, circling in large schools.
Again, on the ground and in the rock crevices we kept seeing Ancistrus sp. and also a large, hitherto unidentified crab. Small tetras were swimming around, but moving too fast for a good photo.
The mountains of Serra Bodoquena are around 70km/43 miles from Bonito. Here, too, small and larger streams pass through the landscape. Marcello had organised a boating trip on Rio Betione — betione being anteater in English, of which we saw numerous specimens. Even the trip to the river was a foretaste of the adventures to come.
The way for the cars had to be cleared with machetes. After some kilometres through deep meadows and impenetrable bush we passed an ancient wooden bridge already rotting and threatening to break any moment.
After another kilometre we reached the bank of Rio Betione. The turbid water was a deep brown, with no water plants in view at all. I soon caught some catfish here. Marcello was very thirsty and almost emptied the container they were in – the fish were OK though.
Marcello warned us not to drink the water from this river ourselves however. He’s grown up with it, so is very used to it.
We then had to travel on by boat. After a good two hours of paddling we had almost given up hope on getting any nice underwater photographs.
However, Marcello was still grinning and pointed to the front. In the distance, we could make out floating plants. When we approached them we were greeted by crystal-clear water and a white sandy ground – paradise!
A rare find
There was gigantic patch of Eichhornia azurea with their typical floating leaves and their especially impressive submerged leaves. This plant is really rare in the hobby and the underwater form is not too common in nature either. Probably the extremely clear water and the nutrient-rich ground have something to do with this wonderful phenomenon.
This Rio Bentione feeder has its source at around 600m/2000’ from the river and the plants have populated the entire stretch.
It was definitely the botanical highlight of this trip for Stefan.
Besides some tetras, we also discovered several crabs and some Apistogramma sp. on the ground.
Rio Formoso, near the town of Bonito, isn’t as clear as other rivers in the area, possibly due to the numerous cascades that churn up the sandy ground. However, it has its own special charm, featuring many beautiful rock formations and gigantic pieces of driftwood.
The slightly turbid water is a light pastel green with visibility around 10m/33’. By pure chance we stumbled across a small feeder stream of around 50m/165’ in length, with strikingly clear water and an incredibly beautiful aquascape with driftwood and large clusters of Stonewort algae (Chara rusbyana) which reminded us very much of dwarf hornwort. it was a miniature paradise, only a few square metres in size.
Stonewort algae can be found all over the world, and most frequently in clear waters and springs. Their common name comes from the fact that their stems are often encrusted in lime.
Besides seeing a pair of Crenichichla busy caring for their brood there was not much else in the way of fish.
Nature has done stunningly wonderful things to this place, but these habitats are now under ever increasing threat. The cattle barons need more pasture, the peasants more fields, and the world is hungry for soy.
We cannot say for how long these clear waters will still exist. Even though they are pretty well-protected right now, this might change in a short time.
What's the water like?
The parameters for the headwaters of Rio da Prata were:
CO2: 8 ppm
FE++: 0 ppm
The parameters for the estuary of Rio da Prata were:
CO2: 2 ppm
FE++: 0 ppm
Watch out for jaguars!
Repeatedly, Marcello warned us to be careful as there were jaguars around Rio Betione – and just a few days before there had been a deadly attack on a fishing boat there.
It had been a good 4m/13’ from the banks, but the jaguar took a gigantic leap and jumped directly on it, killing a 12-year-old boy with one bite at his head.
Jaguars must not be hunted in this area, although Marcello told us that the cattle barons still do so — one of them shooting and killing 29 or more of them. The wheels of justice turn slowly in these cases and the trigger-happy cattle baron has never been held responsible for what he did.
Chris, Stefan and Max would like to express their sincere thanks to Marcello and Mirjam, who did a great job for Dennerle which sponsored this trip.
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