Hunt for the Giant River Otter

After attending the United Nations climate negotiations in Lima, I knew I had to make the most of being in Peru. How could I come so far and not see the “lungs of the planet,” the mighty Amazon Rainforest and the arteries that feed it? Plus, ever since my godparents told me about the enormous otters with human-like heads they’d seen in the Amazon years earlier, I’d dreamt of seeing these creatures for myself.

From the start of the trip, seeing them was my main objective. It was a goal I thought would be easy to check off the list, considering the tales I’d heard of these curious aquanauts from the weasel family coming right up to tourists, unabashedly goofing around not seeming to mind an audience. What follows is a photo-story of the hunt for the giant river otter, which proved to be slipperier than a buttered bar of soap, but as usual, the journey those furry devils set me on was a reward in itself.

A boat travels down the mighty Amazon amidst a rain storm. Photo By Shannon (Switzer) Swanson
Having left the port at Iquitos, the largest city in the world inaccessible by road, a river boat travels down the mighty Amazon amidst a rain storm. Photo By Shannon Switzer


The three hour stormy ride from Iquitos to the Tahuayo tributary of the Amazon was a stunning introduction to the area. Photo by Shannon Switzer.




The Tahuayo River is a tributary of the Amazon, down which the ecotourism company I stayed with, Amazonia Expeditions, is based.



The kids at Chino Village, near the Tahuayo Lodge where I stayed the first few nights, had no fear of swimming. It took me several days to trust my guide when he said I wouldn’t be attacked by piranhas if I swam.



The population of Chino village has grown quite significantly in the last decade. My guide, Manuel, was from the village and introduced me to his family when we visited.



This is Manuel’s little son. Manuel expressed that the job tour guiding has been a huge help in raising his family and also gaining respect in the community. He is now one of the community’s leaders.


While in the village we also visited one of two last remaining Shaman practicing there. He told a sad story about not being able to pass his herbal knowledge on to his family or any youth in the village, because none are willing to go through the strict training, especially since it doesn’t typically lead to income. In the village, there is another Shaman who practices the ayahuasca ritual, which has become popular with tourists in recent years.



This was my hard-working guide, Manuel (he loved to fish, and was really good at it!). This little fish was caught with leftover ham from breakfast and used to catch bigger game.



The second half of the trip, I stayed at the more remote research lodge. I really enjoyed my time here. The sounds of the rainforest were at times literally deafening…in a good way! But sleeping in was not an option.



The research center sits on the edge of the Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo Reserve, which is known for it’s high diversity of primates.



Both the main lodge and the research center are built with all-natural, local materials using traditional building methods.



The yellow rumped cacique was plentiful and building their intricate nests right in front of the research center.



Two rivers meet like coffee and cream: one with dark tannins leeched from leaves and the other with silt from a lack of trees and muddy banks.



Manuel was an expert paddler of the traditional canoes, which was a great help in my pursuit for the giant river otter as well as the pink river dolphins.



It was mid-rainy season, when the river is at mid-height. This meant the flooded forests were present and it was very difficult to see any of the river banks, which made it extra tricky to spot the river otter.



As I mentioned, Manuel was a great fisherman. He caught at least a dozen piranha during my week with him. I did finally swim and was never attacked by these fabled ravenous hunters.



Ever since I’d seen an article in National Geographic depicting the life of the pink river dolphins, I’d dreamed of photographing them. This was the best I could get. In the area we were, the dolphins were quite shy and kept a good distance from the canoe. I’ve seen great shots of them, but I struck out on this account.



The three-toed sloth was one of my favorites. We got to see quite a few of them fairly close, and it was so refreshing to photograph something that took its sweet time.





A white-eared jacamar hanging out. I wish I were a birder, I would’ve enjoyed the Amazon that much more! There were so many species.



About a 15-foot drop off this log in the “terra firma” forest, so-called for its slightly higher elevation. We came here to hunt for poison dart frogs.



No, not a poison dart frog, but a dung beetle (I think!). Loved it’s pretty metallic green color and black patterns.



Cool fungi was prolific.





This beauty is the male of the blue-crowned trogan.



And this is his less precocious mate.



Two bats hang out together (can you spot them?). The light is peeking in from the end of the giant hollowed log the bats have called home.



We found one! Actually several. It was really fun trying to spot these little guys. Though the yellow and blue poison dart frog is the largest of the family, this guy was barely an inch long.



On the boat ride back from terra firma, we were in for a treat. The lodge had rescued, rehabilitated and released a small wooly monkey family back to the forest several years earlier. The monkeys, though wild, still remember their old caretakers and come close to say hello.







To distract myself from the frustration of many days of hearing the squeals and screeches of the giant river otters what seemed to be two feet away, but still not being able to see them, I often went on night excursions to see what creepy crawlers we could find.



Tree frogs were some of my favorite night-time subjects.



For a rodent, this little bamboo rat munching on a blossom was pretty darn cute (you can even see his little pink tongue).





Ah, a true creepy crawler. The tarantula.



Another fun excursion was on a jungle lake nearby that we hike several miles through murky muck to reach. Other visitors had made a jungle raft, and I had a great time pretending to be Tom Sawyer, paddling around the lake with my bamboo poll.







The prehistoric hoatzin was relatively abundant at the lake.



So were these guys, making the entire experience feel prehistoric. Manuel said the cayman’s numbers had dwindled drastically due to overhunting, but now that they were protected, the numbers and size of the cayman were both slowly increasing again.


Violent storms blew through often, making for some dramatic lighting.



The rare saki monkey made an appearance for us…but still no giant river otter.



The hunt continued through the flooded forest as we followed the sounds of the otter family we’d been tracking ever since I’d arrived at the research center.






Finally, on our way back from the flooded forest, the last day of my trip, we spotted one–Manuel identified him as the dominant male of the group or “romp.” While I only got a glimpse of him, and a less than stellar picture, I was tickled beyond belief. To be able to confirm with my own eyes that 6-foot long otters exist in the world is oddly comforting and was the icing on my Peruvian cake.


On our last evening at the research center, we actually got Peruvian cake as an induction into the Amazonia family. It was delicious as was the sunset that evening.



My last evening in the Amazon was a contented one. If it weren’t for the mosquitoes, I never would’ve left.


17 thoughts on “Hunt for the Giant River Otter

  1. Hi Shannon,

    The Picture’s looking really awesome, I likes the Monkey, Cool Fungi and Frog pictures. Keep on the good work.

  2. Your pictures and the tags you attached are wonderful. You are an amazing photographer. You have an artist’s sensibility. Thanks for letting me share in your experience.

    Just one question, though: are your godparents really “furry devils?”

  3. Looks like a great trip. I would have loved to shared a number of your sightings. I have yet to see the Amazon River Dolphins, the Giant Otters, or the Hoatzin. Oh and by the way, big congrats on the PHd posting at Stanford!!!

  4. I felt like I was taking the trip with you. Great pictures and
    I’m glad you finally found the otter! Just terrific!

  5. Love the images – I particularly liked the little boy’s face peeking out of the hammock, the piranha and the one just above it, of the pirogue heading into the dense greenery on the river. Nice blog by the way

  6. Thank you very much, Roff. That means a lot coming from such an accomplished photographer and author as yourself! What a great website you have. Where are you based? I’m also represented by NG Creative and have worked with NG a bit, would love to connect sometime!

  7. Shannon, this was a wonderful adventure you took us all on. Your pictures were incredible…I loved the sloth face. Thank you for sharing with all of us! Glad you found the otter!

  8. Wonderful photos combined with a narrative that guided us throughthe adventure with you. Thank you and keep up the good work!

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