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Kissed by a Gator

by Phocal 5 days ago in photography

The Dangers of Alligator Photography

Olympus OMD EM1 w/ Olympus ZD 50-200 ƒ2.8-3.5 SWD + EC-20 (2.0x TC) - 400mm, ISO 500, 1/1250 @ ƒ7.0, Handheld

The American Alligator (Alligator Mississippiensis) is my favorite wildlife subject. Many of my friends call me Gator Bait because I do things they think is crazy and will one day actually turn me into gator bait. Like in the below photograph when I crawl close to an alligator for a photograph (resulting photograph is the one above). A gator will typically hiss or outright take off into the water if it feels you are too close. When they do hiss at me (every gator is different in how close it will allow you to approach) I back off and respect their uneasiness.

Me laying on the ground capturing the first photograph in the article.

I will admit that when looking thru the viewfinder and this big guy stood up to walk over to the lake (the trail has swamp on the left and to the right out of view is a lake) it not only startled me but got the adrenaline pumping. It's not often I have a gator stand up and walk while I am laying on the ground photographing him and I was not exactly sure what he was doing. This day was pretty busy at the park and the gators seemed a bit uneasy because of all the activity, especially with the bus loads of little kids running around screaming. When he stood up I fired off this quick photo while getting to feet quickly, was worried he could be heading towards me and didn’t want to be on the ground if he was.

Olympus OMD EM1 w/ Olympus ZD 50-200 ƒ2.8-3.5 SWD + EC-20 (2.0x TC) - 100mm, ISO 500, 1/1250 @ ƒ6.3, Handheld

I honestly take very few chances around these natural born killers who are the apex predators of the swamps here in Southeast Texas. I have spent years observing their behavior in natural settings as well as reading every available bit of research I can find. While in college I had access to every scientific journal and databases full of master papers and PhD dissertations, which I took advantage of. Between my own observations and reading I feel like I know gators rather well. I also know they are wild predators who are not predictable and can and do things that are unpredictable. I am not fooling myself into a false sense of security and am very much aware of the danger involved with my activities.

Until recently my worse encounter with a gator was when this big 12 foot male kept swimming up to me and bellowing. He was being overly aggressive for the time of year, typically they are aggressive during mating season or when they have young (females are very aggressive protecting their young). I snapped this photograph of him the first time he swam up to me.

Olympus OMD EM1 w/ Olympus ZD 150mm ƒ2.0 + EC-14 (1.4x TC) - 212mm, ISO 2500, 1/500 @ ƒ4.0, Handheld

Because of his location I had to go by him multiple times while moving around the park. My last time by him he actually crawled up the bank and chased me a bit down the trail, which really surprised me. It was more of a warning as far as I can tell since they can hit speeds of 35mph and he didn’t come at me full speed. I talked with a park ranger when I reported the incident and he told me they had been having problems with him the past few months and were preparing to close that section of the park (after my report they closed that section). The best guess about his behavior is that he lived in a deeper part of the swamp where visitor can’t go and ended here during the Memorial Day flood. So with no real exposure to people his entire live he didn’t know how to react other than by protecting his new territory.

I have always said that if anything were to happen to me while in the swamps it would be from a gator crawling out of the swamp and across me. I wear full camouflage and spend a lot of time lying right next to the water very still while either photographing something or waiting for a stupid bullfrog to resurface. There have been a few times that one has walked past me (within 10 feet) while heading to the water or come out of the water within 10 feet of me. These guys are silent and you will rarely hear them moving about. I was taking this photograph.

Olympus OMD EM1 w/ Olympus ZD 150mm ƒ2.0 + EC-20 (2.0x TC) - 300mm, ISO 800, 1/500 @ ƒ5.6, Handheld

When my friend warned me about his guy coming up behind me.

Me watching this gator my friend warned me was coming up behind me.

He moved up a bank from water on the other side, thru all that vegetation, and into the water without ever making a sound. If she had not told me he was coming I would never have known he was there unless I happened to catch him sliding into the water out of the corner of my eye. I was able to snap this photograph of him after he got into the water.

Olympus OMD EM1 w/ Olympus ZD 150mm ƒ2.0 - ISO 160, 1/640 @ ƒ2.0, Handheld

The park where these photographs are taken is basically a very large swamp with open areas they call lakes. You almost always have water all around you, which makes knowing which way to look for a gator impossible since they can come from any direction.

Last year in late May the park flooded and most of the gator nest were destroyed. Talking with some of the rangers at the park I learned only 4 had survived and this location is the only one accessible by the public.

Olympus OMD EM1 w/ Olympus ZD 150mm ƒ2.0 + EC-20 (2.0x TC) - 300mm, ISO 500, 1/640 @ ƒ5.6, Skimmer Pod

Here is a photograph of me in that location taking the above photograph. The red fencing was put up to keep people from getting too close to the gators.

Me capturing the above photograph.

Female gators will typically build their nest in the same location every year and this one has been here for the past 4 years that I know of. She usually keeps the young farther out in the swamp, which makes getting any photographs of them almost impossible. Alligators mate in late May to early June and the young are born late August to early September. Female gators will guard the nest (they bury the eggs) and then the young after they are hatched. They can have 75-100 eggs but only 1-3% of those that hatch will survive until adulthood. The female will stay with the young until the next mating season and will even allow her previous hatch to stay until the next batch hatches. By the time she chases them off there are only 1-10 (if even that many) still alive and most of those will get eaten by large water birds or other gators with only 1 or 2 living until adulthood.

Mom was out breeding so the young moved up close to that bridge and were hanging out there. This made getting photographs of them pretty easy, this baby was right next to that front post you see in the photo above.

Olympus OMD EM1 w/ Olympus ZD 150mm ƒ2.0 + EC-20 (2.0x TC) - 300mm, ISO 320, 1/500 @ ƒ5.6, Skimmer Pod

I talked with a ranger when I returned the following Saturday and he said the mom had been gone 2-3 weeks. When I took the photos above there were around 15 baby gators in the area but the following Saturday I could only locate 3 of them. We had been getting really bad rains and the park was actually closing that evening because they expected the park to flood again (which it did and wiped out a good portion of gator nest for a 2nd year in a row). In the below photograph the blue arrow marks where I was shooting the babies from the previous week and the red arrow shows where this story really starts. The pinkish blobs mark the locations of the 3 baby gators I was able to locate.

This is the path at Brazos Bend State Park leading to the Observatory. A female gator had a nest near by and since August has been hanging out in the area with her babies. The Blue Arrow shows the normal location of the babies (where the mother gator kept them) and my shooting location on 21 May 2016. The Red Arrow shows my shooting location on 28 May 2016 and the Pink Blobs mark the initial location of the 3 babies on the 28th. On the 21st there were 13-18 babies but on the 28th I could only find 3.

The top pink blob is where I got the below photograph several hours after my gator kiss.

Olympus OMD EM1 w/ Olympus ZD 150mm ƒ2.0 + EC-20 (2.0x TC) - 300mm, ISO 200, 1/400 @ ƒ5.6, Handheld

I was trying to photograph the baby gator at the center blob. In the photo below the red arrow marks where I was laying with my camera between the curb and wood post, the baby gator is marked by the blue arrow. Yes! If you look you can see the mama gator in this photograph, this was taken after the kiss (she was not there when I was taking the photograph).

This photograph shows where I was laying to get a baby gator photograph (Red Arrow) and approximate location of baby gator (Blue Arrow). To get a good perspective I had to lay down and place my lens in the gap between the curb and wood fence. If you look close you can see the momma gator, this was taken after she tried to kiss me.

From that location I got this photograph of the baby gator.

Olympus OMD EM1 w/ Olympus ZD 150mm ƒ2.0 + EC-14 (1.4x TC) - 212mm, ISO 200, 1/640 @ ƒ4.0, Skimmer Pod

When I arrived here I was looking all over for the babies as well as mama gator. I am very observant and not much goes without me noticing it, especially when in the swamp looking for gators. All I could find in the area were the 3 baby gators, not sure what happen to the other 12 or so that where there the previous Saturday and I did not see any adult gators. After getting the above photograph I wanted to swap my 1.4x TC for my 2.0x TC, so I rolled onto my back and made the switch. During this time I was looking up and it's most likely when she came out from under the bridge and why I did not notice it. They are highly sensitive to vibrations because of sensors in their skin, she was well aware that I was up there. After the switch I rolled over and placed my lens in position but before I could even get the little guy in the viewfinder all hell broke lose. The event is really just a blur but I remember seeing something move in front of and to my right while putting my eye to the viewfinder. I also remember hearing a noise and feeling the bridge vibrate a little while at the same time the camera was pushed back into my face. Something told me it was mama gator and as I got to my feet to get out of the way my finger must have pressed the shutter button.

Olympus OMD EM1 w/ Olympus ZD 150mm ƒ2.0 + EC-20 (2.0x TC) - 300mm, ISO 200, 1/400 @ ƒ4.0, Handheld

This is like one of those photographs you see in the movies when someone goes missing and all they find is their camera and the last thing they photographed. I honestly have no idea where she came from. The only thing I can think is that she had returned from mating to look after her kids and was hanging out under the bridge. Here is another photograph of just after the incident with mama gator hanging out watching me. Oh, my hat didn’t fall off during the encounter. I normally take it off when laying down to take photographs because my backpack pushes it forward. It is still laying there because I hadn’t worked up the nerve to get it with mama so close.

Another photograph showing the area where the gator tried to kiss me. Red Arrow shows momma gator hanging out watching me take iPhone photographs.

In the below photograph the red arrow marks a beam sticking out from the bridge that I really believe saved me from getting bit. She smacked it while lunging at me and it slowed/stopped her progress. It is also what made the bridge vibrate giving me a warning that something was amiss. The blue arrow marks the fairly large mama gator (8-9 feet long).

Blue Arrow shows momma gator after the kiss. Red Arrow shows the wood sticking out from the side of the bridge that prevented the gator from actually kissing me. She jumped up from along the side of the bridge and attempted to twist around to her left and kiss me. She hit that wood beam which slowed up her progress and as a result she only hit my lens with the lower part of her jaw (pushing the camera back into my face). No, I didn't see her anywhere around before I started to photograph the babies and I did look for her. She had been absent the last two+ weeks because she had most likely been out breeding (it's breeding season right now), So, I was shocked when she popped up and tried to give me a kiss.

I was really spooked by this incident and on edge the rest of the day. This is the closes I have come to getting hurt by a gator. This is also more than a Gentle Reminder that regardless of how careful you are something can happen. It is also why I probably never saw this bullfrog croak again after I spent 30 minutes getting into position. Prior to moving into place he was croaking away and I really wanted a photograph of his throat all expanded during the croak.

Olympus OMD EM1 w/ Olympus ZD 150mm ƒ2.0 + EC-20 (2.0x TC) - 300mm, ISO 500, 1/500 @ ƒ4.0, Skimmer Pod

I was still really shaken up (this was a few hours later) and could not stay still while watching the frog. Was constantly looking around, which meant Mr. Frog knew I was there and wasn’t going to do a thing until I was gone. I eventually spotted a gator since it is a swamp known for its large number of gators. He was about 15 feet away and I just still so unnerved that it was time to abandon the endeavor and head home since it was getting pretty late and the light was getting to harsh.

I did get to see some new gator behavior because of her. I stuck around a bit after this and took some photographs, the entire time she kept a watchful eye on me. She would hangout out in the open water to keep an eye on me.

After the kiss she mostly hung out in this location (Red Arrow), keeping an eye on me.

Whenever any of the baby gators would chirp she swam very quickly towards me and stopped just off shore. It was like she was saying “don’t get any closer or I will not miss next time.”

Whenever a baby would chirp she would move up closer and keep a better eye on me until she felt the babies were safe before returning to her spot farther out.

I went to the other side of the small lake to see if this older baby gator I photographed the previous Saturday was still around. Here is a shot of him from the previous Saturday.

Olympus OMD EM1 w/ Olympus ZD 150mm ƒ2.0 + EC-20 (2.0x TC) - 300mm, ISO 640, 1/500 @ ƒ5.6, Skimmer Pod

He was there but never in a position for any good photographs. When I returned to the other babies there was a park volunteer with a group of kids looking at the babies. This is when I got to observe the new behavior of the female gator. Most of my time observing gators is when I am alone or with one other person so I don’t have a lot of experience around them when there are large groups of people. With the large group of people by her young she went out into the lake (about 20 or 30 yards) and started swimming back and forth while putting on a show that was similar to what they do when mating. I thought to myself that she was doing this to get the attention focused on her and not her babies. She continued this behavior for the entire 10 or 15 minutes the group was in the area. When they moved on and it was only me standing there on the bridge she swam right back up to me to let me know she was still their, confirming my suspicion about her behavior. It was really interesting to see the different behavior from her depending on the number of humans in the area.

It was not until later that I realized she actually did bite the lens hood. There were multiple cracks in it that I had to tape up until getting a replacement.

This incident didn’t stop me photographing gators but did unnerve me for a month. I was already very cautious and careful when photographing gators. Now I am even more hyper aware and don’t photograph baby gators until I know exactly where mama is.

I have uploaded full resolution images from the article to this Flickr album so you can view them in greater detail.

If you enjoyed this article please subscribe to my profile so you can read my current stories as well as know when new ones are published.

You can view my photographic work as well as purchase some of the images in this article from my website https://phocalart.com

Phocal

photography

Phocal

I am outdoor adventurer and wildlife photographer who also enjoys story telling.

See as well as purchase my photographic work here: https://phocalart.com

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