American crocodiles are probably my favorite animal in the Everglades. I grew up with alligators, played tag with their tails, swam with them, and even caught a few (all of which I would never condone). They're a dime a dozen in most Florida waterways. Everglades National Park, however, is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles share the same space. Double bonus! I've photographed alligators so many times that I'm constantly trying to find new ways of photographing them.
Crocodiles, however, are completely different beasts. In the United States they are considered endangered species and estimates range from 2,000-3,500 individuals. Besides the physical differences (longer snout, more abrupt scales, coloration, eye color, and jaw line), American crocodiles seem to have little in common with the alligators I came to know as a kid. While their gaze and exposed teeth are more menacing, they're actually incredibly shy and tough to approach. I've tried for nearly two years to capture a worthy image of these reptiles without much luck. It always seems that just as I am closing in with good light and camera ready, they scuttle off into the murky water. I do, however, have plenty of images of a giant splashing tail.
A large, 12ft crocodile basks at the edge of Lake Ingram
I embrace these types of challenges, though. The trick to any wildlife photography is figuring out the animal's habits and then putting yourself right in the middle of it. Reptiles are fairly predictable creatures. Knowing that above all else they need to warm their bodies by sunlight, I tried a technique I employed while in South Carolina. Setting my camera trap up at one of their favorite basking locations I let the shutter run for three days at 2 minute intervals. I was disappointed not to find a single crocodile when I returned to retrieve the camera but they simply have too many places they frequent to depend on one location with a static, un-manned camera. I needed a bottleneck; some sort of biotic or abiotic factor that would increase my chances of getting close.
Crocodiles gather on a mud flat along the southern tip of Florida.
Taking to the air, I scouted out locations where I thought they might congregate. It turns out flying over Cape Sable during a cold winter day the best way to see American crocodiles in the Everglades. While this made for a couple "keeper" images, I needed something better, closer, where viewers could get right down in the dragon's lair.
Luckily I'm not the only one down here who thinks these sorts of missions are fun. A few friends of mine, Garl Harrold, Mark Parry, and April Geisler were all patiently waiting for a cold weekend to sweep through the Everglades this winter to get close looks at crocodiles. We had one day where the temperature was just barely cold enough and water levels moderately low to concentrate the reptiles in a few remote locations. I had my bottleneck!
Garl Harold (front), Mark Parry, and April Geisler portage the canoes through a shallow creek
We woke up at 4 AM and trailered a boat loaded with a kayak and canoe out to the park. Putting in right at sunrise we headed out for the Cape Sable area. Anchoring the boat, we portaged the kayak and canoe loaded with enough food, water, and camera gear through salt marsh until reaching the water. While I cannot disclose where this area is, I will say that it's no easy task to get there.
This deep, thick mud pit held me for about 5 minutes before I freed myself.
Luckily no cameras were injured in the making of this photo. Photo by Garl Harrold
Paddling 7 miles, we finally made it to the mud banks where the year prior I saw over 40 crocodiles, only to find they had all slipped into the water. It turns out the 60-degree weather just wasn't cold enough to keep them from moving. I was almost heart-broken. Muddy, wet, sore, and tired, I knew I'd have to wait another year for a shot like this.
An American crocodile in its natural habitat reveals only a glowing green eye.
Disappointed, we anchored the boats and started eating lunch until Mark yelled out from the shore that he found a croc still submerged in the mud. We slogged over and it took me about a minute to actually see the crocodile. Its whole body was camouflaged with the mud and the only part visible was a neon green and yellow eye glowing in the afternoon sun. This is what I came for!
Slowly and cautiously, I walked around the crocodile so as not to scare it off or scare it towards me, and began shooting photos from a distance. Once I felt the 8-foot croc was comfortable or tolerant of us being there, I moved in a little closer. The tingling in my fingertips and tension in my thighs felt the palpable presence of wild nature. Those of you who have been close to large wildlife, know exactly what I'm talking about. I want to believe I made a connection with this crocodile, that we bonded for a moment, but the biologist in me knows that it's a simple calculation in the crocodile's mind which allowed me to stay. It was cold and he didn't want to spend the energy to defend his spot. Ten very sweaty and nervous minutes later, I had the image I'd been envisioning for the last two years.
The difference between how I felt just before biting into my lunch, knowing that we hadn't found the crocodiles we came to see and finding ol green-eye laying up in the mud was a complete 180. I know I shouldn't rely on wildlife for the barometer of my happiness, but after years of planning I was too emotionally involved. Treasure hunters probably feel this way all the time. Luckily this year we didn't come up empty-handed, or one-handed for that matter.
All jokes aside, wild crocodilians are not what I would consider to be aggressive animals. When unprovoked and unmolested they are simply observers and tend to avoid humans at all costs. To them, we're big potential predators and they want nothing to do with us. To assume that every alligator or crocodile is just waiting for a chance to bite people is baseless. To this day there still has yet to be an unprovoked alligator or crocodile attack in Everglades National Park and there is no shortage of tasty tender-skin tourists running around. Still, I do not encourage people to get close to alligators, crocodiles, or other animals. I was accompanied by a wildlife biologist who works professionally with crocodiles and alligators and I myself have years of experience with these animals. No crocodiles were harmed in any way in the making of these photos. Please do not attempt this in your local swamps or parks.