When big cat photographer Steve Winter went to Brazil's Pantanal National Park in 2016, he was on a mission to document jaguars. And in the story of how he got one of his most incredible shots, Scarface is his protagonist.
Winter had been trailing the 10-year-old alpha jaguar non-stop for four days. Traveling down a river that cuts through dense Brazilian forest, Winter and his cameraman Bertie Gregory had seen the large cat with a split lip lunge at and miss over a dozen previous targets. They were beginning to think they wouldn't document a kill.
The lack of progress was getting to him, Winter recounts. Sitting under an umbrella rigged into a fishing pole holder, Winter sat with camera in tow, feeling the 46-degree Celsius heat bear down on him.
Winter was ready to give up on the cat. "Then boom—he went underwater."
What Winter documented next unfolded in only 15 seconds.
Bobbing his head underwater to firmly grasp his prey, Scarface emerged from the river with a caiman in his jaws. Jaguars are big cats, the third largest in the world, but Winter's photos show the caiman to be nearly twice as large.
Manoeuvring out of the water quickly and gracefully, Scarface drags the reptile fully out of the water and into dense forest cover. Winter couldn't see what happened next, but presumes that once the jaguar's powerful teeth punctured the caiman's vertebrae, its fate was sealed.
When he finally saw Scarface make a kill, Winter says, he was full of adrenaline, and his hand was cramping from holding down the shutter button on his camera for so long.
While the hunting sequence isn't commonly documented, caimans are a well-known source of food for jaguars.
During this region's dry season, animals like caimans and capybaras can be found more abundantly in and around rivers.
"It's like the jaguars' supermarket," says Winter.
Jaguars are able to hold onto larger, powerful prey like caiman because of the way they hunt. Other big cats kill their prey by clamping their jaws around its neck and suffocating it. Jaguars instead kill by puncturing their prey with powerful bites.
"Jaguars are built for power, not for speed," notes Winter. "They have strong upper body strength, and an incredible jaw."
He says he and his camera crew frequently saw jaguars swimming upstream for hours in search of dinner. In video previously shot by National Geographic showing a jaguar killing a caiman, Explorer Luke Dollar notes they're the most aquatic of all big cats.
In the Pantanal, jaguars seem to take little notice of his small fishing boat, Winter says. In their range, which extends from the northern tip of Argentina to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Brazilian nature reserve is the only region in which they're fully protected.
Winter plans to one day return to the Pantanal and further document jaguars. He's unsure if Scarface, now more than a decade old, will still be around. He presumes it will be a new alpha he chases.
Lead Image: A male jaguar called "Scarface" attacks and kills a crocodile in the Pantanal River in Mato Grosso, Brazil. PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVE WINTER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC