Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Gator Tale

American alligator in Big Cypress National Preserve

This past weekend, I met up with a photographer friend Paul Marcellini in Big Cypress National Preserve to explore and photograph some new areas. Making sure to stay as far from the trail as possible, we used Paul's iPhone to navigate through the maze of cypress domes, praying that he wouldn't run out of service as we pushed deeper and deeper into unknown territories. At the tail end of the dry season, we expected to cover a lot of ground since we wouldn't have to slog through any blackwater. We set our bearings for gator holes which we knew would be the only places with water and of course, american alligators. Little did we know, however, that from start to finish we would cover all facets of an alligator's life.

Tamiami trail is known for its deep canal that runs along the the northern side of the road and provides perfect basking habitat for american alligators. Every once in a while a brave gator will try to cross the road. Sadly, some of the locals see this as sport and will jokingly refer to them as speed bumps. Accidents do happen, but it's hard to imagine a 10 foot alligator coming out of nowhere.

Another "speed bump" along the road. It's a sad thing to see, but a
reality on Tamiami Trail where both cars and alligators are abundant.

By the time we got to our starting point the sun was high enough in the sky that we didn't expect to shoot much in the cypress domes. Although 8:00 is by no means too late, once under the canopy it becomes difficult to avoid intense tonal contrasts with mottled light. Shrugging, I turned to Paul and said, "I guess we'll have to shoot things a little tighter." I had no idea what that harmless plan would lead to.

Throughout our 3 mile trek, we encountered 11 different gator holes. Gator holes are clearings typically in a cypress strand where alligators have excavated plants and debris. In doing this, they ensure when water is scarce, they will always have a self contained water source to feed on fish until the rains return. Each gator hole had its own resident and we were surprised to find hatchlings swimming around so early in the season.

It's mating season right now in the Everglades, but apparently some 
alligators are ahead of the curve.

We even came across a gator hole where the resident alligator hadn't been so fortunate. It's hard to fathom that a gator of that size would die of natural causes, so I'm suspecting foul play. Whatever the case it smelled horrible, but that didn't stop the black vultures from enjoying a nice Sunday brunch.

Black vultures, the recyclers of the Everglades make quick work of an alligator

Around 10:00, we arrived at a hole where a mother and her hatchlings swam amongst splashing fish.  She watched us with a weary gaze as we skirted her home. The mud surrounding the water was deep and heavy. Looking up, we noticed a tail and snout sticking out from the muck. Looks like we found our "tight shot." Hesitating, just a little, we got in close with our macro lenses relying on the weight of the mud to discourage any movement from the gator.

In the Everglades, the mud has eyes

Certainly a manageable size, at 6-7 feet, Paul and I were confident but grateful the other was there with a helping hand, or a camera at least. So we got in closer.

Paul Marcellini in his element

Slowly, the gator brought its head out of the mud and let us know it was his mud. I've imagined a photo like this for a long time and I wasn't going to blow it. I attached a wide angle lens and lowered my camera as close to the mud as possible. The gator burped and hissed, releasing the smell of rotting flesh into the air and I triggered the shutter.

"The Dragon's Lair" a new print available at

After a few frames, we backed away slowly and thanked the gator for its hospitality. It was a raw and beautiful experience sharing space in the lair of a dragon. When I got home I called a friend and told him about our afternoon, excited to show him the pictures. He laughed, agreed it sounded like an adventure, then casually told me he had just returned from swimming with over 40 gators. While such a thing is far beyond my comfort zone, it's not so uncommon down here. Still, I'd much rather photograph them from terra-somewhat-firma. Although, now that I think about it, an underwater photo looking up at their silhouetted bodies against an aqueous sky sounds pretty tempting... hmmmm....


  1. Good Stuff Mac. Living dangerously for the perfect shot. ~Buddy

  2. ahh he was just a little guy! I doubt I would have gotten that close to one of the 12-footers..