Rio da Prata
When we first saw pictures of the rivers around Bonito, we were instantly captivated and our decision was made – we absolutely have to go!
It took a few weeks for our trip in December 2010 to be planned and organised. According to Christel Kasselmann, a well-known author of several books on aquarium plants, who has already been to Bonito, the month of December is a good time of year for diving and snorkelling!
So where exactly is this place of pilgrimage for aquarists?
It's in Brazil, specifically the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, which is in inland Brazil. The region borders Paraguay and Bolivia in the west.
With an area of over 350,000 sq km, it is roughly the size of Germany, but it is very sparsely populated. The capital city is Campo Grande with nearly 800,000 inhabitants. Almost a third of Mato Grosso do Sul is marshland, known as the Pantanal. It is one of the biggest wetlands on Earth and has been protected as a world heritage site since 2000! The area around the small town of Bonito is situated just south of the Pantanal, around 300 km away from the capital of Campo Grande.
In recent years, Bonito has become an El Dorado for freshwater diving and snorkelling. The crystal clear waters with incredible numbers of fish and plants are the main attraction for tourism. Great emphasis is also placed on environmental protection, to prevent damage to these natural treasures. Only small groups of up to 10 - 15 visitors are guided through these waters, under the supervision of state-approved tour guides, and even then only with a time limit of 1 - 2 hours. These restrictions were not exactly ideal conditions for our purposes, because you need a lot of hours to take good photos and video recordings!
In the Explore Pantanal travel agency we had found a perfect local partner to help with organisation. Marcelo Yndio, an Indian from the Kadiwèu tribe, and Swiss-born Miriam Göring, specialise in custom tours of the Pantatal.
On 9 December the time had finally come. Chris had already flown to Brazil two days earlier, in order to discuss everything again in detail with Marcelo and Miriam.
Stefan and Max, son of company founder Ludwig Dennerle, had a flight that was dominated by snow chaos at Frankfurt airport.
Flight delays, a missed connecting flight and lost luggage hindered the long journey.
With a day's delay we finally landed in Campo Grande! We then headed straight for Bonito by off-roader. Our first destination was the Rio da Prata silver river, around 70 km south of Bonito.
We had received special authorisation to visit this habitat and devoted ourselves to this location for two full days. In the late afternoon we finally went under water for the first time! The scene is hard to describe and we were all completely overwhelmed!
The "treasures of the silver river" are the countless species of fish and the magnificent aquatic plants As the day was already well advanced, for the time being we restricted our observations to the headwaters of the Rio da Prata. In many places the spring water bubbled from the sandy bottom. The fish were not at all shy, some small tetra even tugged incessantly at our lips hoping to find something edible. The bigger fish were especially impressive, such as the black pacus, Colossoma macropomum, and the large tetras, Brycon hilarii, with their bright orange tail fins. The most striking fish, and the biggest, was a gigantic trahira, which can grow up to 100 cm long! The powerful jaw has large, sharp teeth. But he swam past us peacefully and hardly noticed us! Apparently we were not his idea of prey. His preferred prey is the flannel-mouthed characin, Prochilodus lineatus, which we encountered frequently at this site.
The next day we went downstream, but at 30 m per second, the very strong current carried us for many kilometres. We stopped frequently, overwhelmed by many natural aquascaping scenes. The dominant plant in the Rio da Prata was the star grass, Heteranthera zosterifolia. It belongs to the pickerelweed family and forms huge carpets of plants in this river. Heteranthera is very light-demanding, but still grows at 2 - 3 m deep in lush shades of green. In some shallow areas we also discovered emersed cushions with small, pale-blue flowers. The star grass is a very attractive aquarium plant for the mid to background. It is rarely found commercially and is a plant for real enthusiasts.
In contrast with its natural habitat in the Rio da Prata, in the aquarium it is a little looser in habit. Star grass looks most attractive in combination with red-leaved species. It is always very impressive to come across such aquarium plants in their natural habitat.
[Rio da Prata Plantahunter] Heteranthera is the predominant plant in the silver river and we only saw other species, such as Helanthium bolivianum (Echinodorus bolivianus) and Hydrocotyle verticillata, in a few places. We discovered a wonderful moss in a zone of shallow water in the shady bank area. With permission we collected a small amount of this pretty moss species. The moss is currently being propagated in emersed form in our greenhouses and will probably be available commercially soon!
As in the whole region around Bonito, the Rio da Prata also has water very rich in carbonate, the temperature in the headwaters was 23°C. However, it was a bit chilly, as you are only allowed to let yourself "float" in the waters. The local rangers paid close attention to ensure that the sensitive structure of the substrate was not damaged by our feet. Without a wetsuit, a longer stay in the water would have been a rather chilly experience.
The Rio da Prata is renowned for its abundance of fish. However, the wide variety of different rock and sand formations under water is equally impressive. But you have to watch out for the particularly sharp limestone. Some is just a few centimetres below the water surface. It can quickly slash your wetsuit or your skin. In one place in particular the journey was quite adventurous, along the lines of "white-water canoeing" - only without a canoe!