Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Swimming with Alligators

Ok, before you start trying to nominate me for the Darwin Awards, read the post.

Meet Chris Gillette. Chris is a professional gator wrestler living in Homestead, Florida. He performs weekly shows at Everglades Outpost Wildlife Rescue and the Everglades Alligator Farm to teach the public about crocodilian behavior and what to do should you ever find yourself in a situation like the one pictured above. You might recognize him from the television show Gator Boys, but I met Chris through our small circle of South Florida adventurers, and after seeing images of him handling alligators the gears started turning on how I might be able to meet him in his element and make a few images of my own. I just bought an underwater housing so it seemed like a perfect way to break in the new equipment. I envisioned a relatively tame shoot where he handled what he called his "big puppy dogs" and my end goal was to create a series of images that showed a more docile side to these feared reptiles. Of course, things don't always play out as you plan them. 

The bad news broke early as Chris let me know that his favorite alligator had recently passed away and instead, we would be working with freshly caught, aggressive nuisance alligators from Big Cypress National Preserve. Great. The good news, however, is that the water was cold, very cold, so they would likely be disinclined to act out. Luckily I brought my wet suit. His girlfriend, Ashley Lawrence who also handles alligators, was there to help spot and make sure nothing went wrong. Admittedly, I was feeling pretty cavalier, because here I had two of the most qualified handlers watching my back and making sure the shoot went smoothly. Plus, I had seen them in similar situations plenty of times so I was hungry to get in the water and start making images. Chris quickly put me in check, saying that I should be nervous and that it was a little unhealthy not to be. It could have been the water temperature, but as soon as I submerged and entered their world, I looked head-on at a 9-foot alligator and peed my wetsuit.

Gator belly - Homestead, FL - Photo © Mac Stone
Before we got in the water, though, Chris told me what to expect. Since these gators hadn't been handled before they would be unpredictable and would likely resist being grabbed or approached. In the event that a gator charged me, he cautioned that I sit perfectly still and just act like a rock. I'll be the first to say that it's one thing to envision yourself in that situation, and something altogether different to actually perform. I was on SCUBA so I didn't have to worry about continually coming to the surface for air. I sat on the bottom, like a rock, just as Chris suggested. But when he reached for the first gator and it wiggled free, it made a bee-line straight for me. I braced for impact and the gator's snout slammed into my shoulder and kept swimming, as if I weren't even there. I looked up and Chris was treading water, smiling, with two thumbs up.  

I've grown up with gators and have had my fair share of close calls in the wild, but in this moment I was really proud of myself. Once I hurdled that obstacle, the rest of the shoot went smoothly. In fact, they were so comfortable with me, that one of the large gators even found a nice resting spot between my legs while I photographed another.  

It was one of the most invigorating shoots I've done and it gave me a new appreciation for the work that Chris, Ashley, Everglades Outpost and the Everglades Alligator Farm do for the public. Normally, these nuisance alligators would be euthanized. These businesses give the gators a second chance and in turn help reeducate the masses that our reptilian neighbors are not blood-thirsty man-eaters. They are the freshwater equivalent to sharks: misunderstood and in need of some good PR.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Weekends on the Fly

Micah Groeber hikes in to a favorite fishing hole - North Carolina
A wild trout stream is the one thing that competes for attention with my camera. When the fishing is good it's impossible to pry a fly rod out of my hands. I won't eat, I forget to drink water; I'm like a labrador chasing a tennis ball. While working as a fishing guide in Wyoming along the North Platte River I once watched a bear cross the river twenty feet in front of me and climb atop a rock, dripping wet and backlit in golden light and my camera sat idly in its bag all because a trico hatch had brown trout slamming my fly after every cast. Fly fishing is the ultimate vacation. Sometimes I can't even force myself to take pictures because I hate the idea of missing even a few moments of good water.

Micah fishing a favorite stretch of stream - Photo © Mac Stone
Recently I've gotten better at balancing the two and it's mostly by force. In the smaller streams of North Carolina there's simply not enough room for two people to fish side by side. So when I head out for a day on the water with good friend Micah Groeber, I get to be both angler and photographer. Plus, he gladly helps carry my underwater housing so long as I get photos of the action.

Colorful brown trout - Photo © Mac Stone
Lately, we've been getting into some really good streams. While most serious anglers head west for big fish, Micah and I have been finding some of the heartiest and most colorful native browns I've ever seen in the Blue Ridge. When you're pulling 20'' browns out of three feet of Appalachian mountain water, what's not to photograph? 

Brown trout - Photo © Mac Stone
Micah with his prized brown - Photo © Mac Stone
20'' wild brown trout - Photo © Mac Stone