Mikrogeophagus ramirezi: An Odyssey to Their Natural Habitat

Author: Ivan Mikolji

An underwater explorer braves the deep jungle to observe and photograph ram cichlids in their native waters.

A Special Spot for Rams

During many years of investigating and exploring bodies of fresh water in Venezuela, I have run across a large number of cichlids—some that are very rare in the aquarium hobby such as Laetacara fulvipinnis and some that are very common like Heros severus or ram cichlids Mikrogeophagus ramirezi.

Due to their extensive distribution, rams are found in a variety of habitats. In some flooded habitats, they can be seen migrating by the millions. I’m going to share with you one very special spot in the Morichal River that I have explored repeatedly year after year. What makes this spot so special is that it houses a group of six to ten large rams in one specific 50-square-foot area. This doesn’t mean that there are no rams a mile up or down the river, but I have never seen a large ram 200 yards upstream or downstream from that spot. It is amazing to go there once or twice a year in the rainy and dry seasons and still find that group of individuals in the same spot. Rams probably don’t live more than a year or so, so this must be a special permanent spot for adult rams.

Getting to the Ram Habitat

I will start my story on the last two days of a 17-day expedition throughout the Venezuelan territory. The first seven days of the expedition took place in Atabapo and were reported on in an article in the November 2008 issue of TFH, “The First Live Pictures of Pristobrycon careospinus.”

I got up at six in the small town of Temblador, which means electric eel, and drove two hours north to the location of the rams near the Orinoco River Delta. Things were looking good! The sun was shining, and the sky had no clouds. This is very good for underwater photography. It normally rains every day during the rainy season in this area, and if it doesn’t rain, there are gray clouds present all day long that reduce the chance of getting good pictures.

I detour into a small, broken-down back road that transforms into an even poorer one. I’m not sure I can even call it a road, as four-wheel drive became mandatory.

I drive as close as I can to the river, park the truck, and (as usual) put on some repellent on my clothes and have a nice breakfast: a can of tuna with crackers, sitting on the tailgate. Accompanying that nice gourmet meal, which I have had for the past 14 days, is a glass of hot shaken soda. At this point, I’m really thinking of a grilled steak and mountains of mashed potatoes!

The Long March

Once I finish eating, I put all of my gear together and get into my wetsuit, spray myself with repellent again, and start my 200-yard walk to the location of the rams. The task of walking 200 yards sounds easy, but my gear consists of a 22-pound, waterproof plastic case that holds the camera for video and photography, all of the underwater accessories, as well as a thermometer, pH meter, etc. There is also the snorkeling gear bag, which contains my mask, fins, and other loose things in it, such as drinks or snacks. I usually also carry a 14-pound lead belt in it, but I decided it is better to wear than carry it this time.

The 200-yard trip in the waist-high brush with all this heavy gear is slowed down midway by a barbwire fence. This fence has five filaments of barbed wire at one-foot intervals from the ground.

As I am by myself, I slide the heavy case full of delicate items under the wire and throw the snorkeling bag over to the other side. Deciding how to cross the barbwire fence is a whole other task. The wires are too close to each other, so I cannot pass through the middle. I either have to go over the top or drag myself on the ground under the last filament.

I decide to go over the top, thinking that balancing myself on a 5-foot-high barbwire might be much easier than dragging myself across the brush full of insects and small spines. As I balance myself on the thin barbwire, I start to laugh, thinking what locals would think if they saw someone in this jungle area, in the middle of nowhere, wearing a wetsuit and climbing clumsily over a fence!

Once the barbwire fence saga is over, I still have 100 yards to go. As I have my wetsuit on, under direct tropical sunlight and 91°F weather, I’m sweating profusely. Now I wish for a cloud to pass or rain to fall! Again, I apply repellent. My wetsuit is a short-sleeved, short-legged design, and the brush and sweat wore off the bug spray. Arriving at the location of the rams at last, I throw all my items on the riverbank and jump into one of the water’s deeper areas to cool off. Sitting there thinking I have to make the same trek again for the return trip in a couple of hours makes me feel a bit upset, but the cold water cools these thoughts off.

Photographing Rams

After five minutes, I get out of the water and begin looking for the rams from the riverbank. The area with rams has no trees on the banks, so there is no shade. Rams are usually found in water less than 2 feet deep.

Looking for them from the bank has many advantages, too. First, it is easier to spot them from outside of the water; underwater, aquatic plants often block your view. Second, when you move on land, the fish get less scared and are less likely to swim away than if you walk in the water. Third, walking outside leaves their habitat intact without damaging the aquatic plants. The water also doesn’t get stirred. Fourth, if you spot the fish, you can take a more extensive picture of its pristine habitat and have an easier time assessing their behavior. I have found that if you take the time to view the fish from the above before getting into the water, you always wind up taking better pictures or videos.

Unanswered Questions

It’s important to me to count how many individuals there are. Are they spawning or with fry? If I scare them by passing my hand over the water or jumping, where do they go to hide out? How long does it take them to come out of their hideouts? How fast does the water flow? Where am I going to position myself in the water to take the pictures? I also take pH or temperature readings at this point: The pH is 6.2, and the water temperature in the shallow, one-foot-deep water where the rams live reads 82°F.

My First Sighting

I spot six adult rams, and their brilliant colors can be seen from the bank 6 feet away. I see that there are many aquatic plants that slow down the water current, and there is a small open area with no plants where they come out once in a while to feed. I decide that the 2-square-foot open area is the only spot where I’m going to be able to photograph them. At this moment my head is so hot from the sun; it feels as if I can fry a steak on it (again, I’m thinking of food!). I quickly take a picture of the habitat from the outside, sink a 3-foot stick 4 inches into the riverbank near the ram location, put the entire underwater camera together, take a sip of the super-hot soda, get my mask, and head into the water 15 yards under the ram spot into the deeper area of the river.

I slowly start dragging myself up the river against the water current, following the direction of the stick I placed on the water edge as a reference point. (I say dragging instead of swimming because I have a 14-pound lead belt on my waist in 2 feet of water.) The lead belt is very useful, however, in that it prevents me from being dragged by the water current.

As I approach the one-foot shallow area, the large amount of aquatic plants makes it impossible for me to see 2 inches past my mask. The only way to guide myself is to take my head out of the water and look at the stick. As the water gets shallower and heavily vegetated, the current gets slower and the organic matter that was in suspension is deposited on the bottom. This lack of strong current topped the river’s silica sand substrate with something you can describe as organic quicksand. Every time I drag myself closer to the shore, I sink more into this mushy combination of silt, sticks, and decaying leaves combined with silica sand. This mush is around 4 to 5 inches thick, and under it was the firm silica sand substrate.

Soon I manage to get to the 2-foot clearing, but I see no rams. I wait patiently to see if they come out into the clear to feed on the mush. Not even 10 minutes later, they seem to get used to me and come out to feed as if I wasn’t there.

Slowly But Surely

I now realize that I have a couple of other problems. As I am in a foot of water or less, my back is not underwater. The mosquitoes are starting to feast on me through my wetsuit. I rock from side to side to see if I can scare them away, which all of a sudden makes the mush start flying, making photography impossible. I decide to concentrate and avoid thinking about my back, but there is little success.

My other problem is that I’m lying against the slow current, and all I see is the backside of the rams. As they are always swimming against the current, I only have a limited amount of time to take a picture when they turn to a good angle. As a result, I have to spend a long time waiting for them to pose correctly and hopefully be concentrated enough to press the shutter at the exact time.

As time goes by looking at the rams underwater, everything suddenly falls into place and I forget about everything else. I can only describe the feeling as complete relaxation. All thoughts go away and I feel like I’m supposed to be there, living with the rams, as if I was one of them.

Rams in their natural habitat spend 90 percent of their time feeding, and the rest of the time they are either flashing their fins at other rams or expelling other fish that intrude into their feeding grounds. As they feed, they gulp up the mush in their mouths and start chewing on it. Soon afterward, they spit out the larger inedible material and swallow whatever they find edible while sifting and expelling the fine leftovers out their operculum. During this whole process, they lift small clouds of silt. When four rams are eating simultaneously, it is impossible to photograph them because they make the water very murky.

Picture Perfect Memories

After more than two hours and 346 pictures taken, I decide that I have enough good pictures and turn off the camera, laying it down in between the aquatic plants. I look at the rams and forget about work, simply observing them as they are in their natural habitat.

After a long while I get out of the water, get my video camera and do the same process again to shoot some footage. At this point the rams are not scared of me anymore, which makes the filming process quicker. Before it gets too late, I get out of the water and start my voyage to the truck. This time, being in a wet wetsuit and totally relaxed, the 200-yard trip back and over the fence feels like heaven.

Going Back Home

I have a late lunch again in the tailgate. This time, lunch consists of crackers and canned tuna, a nice break from tuna and crackers. The soda that I placed in the water is now 83°F, cooler than the air temperature!

I drive for two hours and get to the city of Maturin, where I meet with a good Canadian friend of mine who does oil rig cleanups in the area. He offers me to stay at a house he rented out for him and his workers. We have a nice steak for dinner and go to that house; by now it’s eight at night.

Once at the house, he shows me to a spare bedroom on the second floor. Unpacking some clean clothes, I hear a racket coming from the bottom floor. As I go down, I hear that some workers are asking my friend to place them in a hotel. I ask why, and they say that the house is haunted and they haven’t been able get a good night’s sleep in a long time. They say that every other night, they see the ghost or specter of a small girl walking around their beds or in the kitchen when they are cooking.

After some minutes of arguing, my friend takes some of them to a nearby hotel. The bravest stay at the house, saying they have seen the girl ghost but don’t mind her. I stay in the house with my camera in hand just in case I see her, but I eventually fall asleep despite trying to keep one eye open. Early in the morning, with no ghost pictures but a lot of ram pictures, I drive 12 hours back home. Quite the eventful experience!

See the full article on TFH Digital http://www.tfhdigital.com/tfh/201106#pg77