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.
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.
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.
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.
When my friend warned me about his guy 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The top pink blob is where I got the below photograph several hours after my gator kiss.
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).
From that location I got this photograph of the baby gator.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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