My good friend/client and I met our guide in the early morning well before sunrise, our back packs stuffed with camera gear and warm clothes. We followed him anxiously up and down the winding steeply curved roads of Torres del Paine. Once we arrived at our parking spot, it started to rain, we got out of our cars and began our hike; over mountains, through streams and around sticker bush covered ground. When we finally made our way to the puma's overnight den, we were soaked from head to toe.
Momma was the first to wake, followed by one, two, three and then four cubs--as cute as anything I had ever laid eyes on. They were curious and shy. They seemed to bounce as they stepped, carefully yet clumsily, around the varied terrain. My friend and I watched with sheer joy as they jumped and pawed at each other in such a playful and innocent manner. Their resemblance to mother was eerie. At first glance, I recognized the puma features and thought oh my gosh…that is cute!! They all looked slightly different from one another, yet they were all miniature versions of their mom.
Before booking my flight and making the long trek to Patagonia, I was told of a female puma with small cubs that would be coming out of their den soon. Puma cubs leave their den at around six weeks-they usually start to feed on meat at eight weeks. The obvious signs of nursing on the mother told us that the cubs were still less than eight weeks old.
BBC film crews and researchers joined most of our viewings with the Puma cubs. However, we were blessed with two rainy days alone with the cubs and their magnificent mother. These days were special and will be cherished by me for years.
On our last morning we hiked great distances to position ourselves within close proximity to momma puma's latest guanaco kill. We set up our cameras there, then sat and waited, hoping mother and cubs would return to feed on their kill. We were not disappointed. Momma alone fed from the carcass, while her cubs nursed and played. After her short snack, momma dragged her prey into a shallow depression and began covering it with brush and dirt to hide it from scavengers. One of the cubs mimicked mom by pawing and kicking more dirt over the prey. The cub's efforts were so endearing that I couldn't suppress a chuckle.
We returned to the carcass in the late afternoon hoping to find momma and cubs feeding on their kill, but they were sound asleep under a bush near the meal. Again we waited for hours in the snow, while the temperature plummeted and the late autumn winds began to howl. Suddenly, and without warning, a lone puma slinked in and starting feeding on the carcass. This thieving puma approached with such stealth that even our professional puma tracker and the film crew didn't notice her approach until she had already reached the carcass.
Momma puma heard the telltale sounds of bone crunching and flesh tearing as the intruder ravaged her guanaco kill. As momma arose from her nearby slumber, the meat thief spun about on the carcass so that she was now facing momma's direction. Momma came back to confront the interloper and made a valiant effort to scorn her away and reclaim her prized guanaco. Once the coast was clear, she gently called to her young cubs so they could share in the feeding and take their first bites and scraps of meat.
The cubs were utterly adorable as they jumped right in on the feeding. They were awkward with their moves yet fearless and enthusiastic. I was smiling from ear to ear as I watched them tug at the meat. They were getting so big since my first day with them and that was only nine days ago.
After standing on the mountain for hours I showed signs of hypothermia; my socks were soaking wet from a long hike with a small water crossing I had done just before going back up the mountain. Lesson learned, keep your feet dry, pack an extra pair of socks in case your feet get wet and don’t leave your warm jacket and gloves in the car.
During my days with the puma, I observed behavior that I thought I could have only seen on television. Watching situations unfold in person is such a big rush. My days were usually about twelve hours long with hours and hours of hiking followed by hours and hours of waiting for about a half hour of shooting. I worked extremely hard for each of these images, carrying my Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM Lens , Canon EOS 5D Mark IV DSLR Camera, Canon Extender EF 1.4X III, Canon Extender EF 2XIII, Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS Lens, Sony Alpha a7R III Mirrorless Digital Camera, Induro GIT304L Grand Series 3 Stealth Carbon Fiber Tripod, mongoose head, Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM Lens, Sony FE 24-105mm f/4, G lens, Sony FE 1.4x Teleconverter and all of my warm clothes, water, nuts, etc.… it was exhausting! Would I do it again—you betcha! SO worth it!
A special thank you to our guides in Patagonia, they worked tirelessly to make sure that the puma were being respected and that each of the photographers, researchers and film makers were able to get the images and footage that they came for.
I’ll be returning in late April of 2021 with a group if anyone is interested… Below are some of my favorite shots of the Puma. All in all, we saw ten different puma (that number includes the four cubs).