The Florida Everglades is an amazing place. Chock full of wildlife and beautiful scenery it never ceases to amaze me. I love going out there in the early morning hours and watching the wetlands come to life. Being out there at the end of the day and watching the night creep in during that hour after sunset is nothing short of magic. I remember every photo I’ve ever taken and each one has a story behind it. I’ve realized that while I do have knowledge to share, I’m not a teacher but a storyteller. Going forward that will be the new theme of this blog. There are already thousands of how to articles, tutorials, and instructional blogs out there. What I’d like to do is to share with you the stories behind some of my favorite photos. Many times I also film videos while I’m out with my camera and if a photograph has an accompanying video I’ll be sharing those too. I’ll still be posting tips and tricks from time to time but it won’t be the main focus here. Instead, sit back and relax, there’s no school today. Instead, enjoy a behind the scenes look at my world.
Deep in the wetlands of the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge one evening, I heard the distinct sounds of baby alligators chirping. My heart beat with excitement with just a touch of fear sprinkled in. A heady mix. And I love that feeling. I knew with baby alligators around that the mother would not be far off and would fiercely guard her young, even to the point of attacking any intruder that gets too close for her comfort. I froze in place and listened carefully trying to determine the exact location of the sounds. They were close by and off to the side so I retreated and walked around the path and then there they were.
A clutch of about 20 baby alligators were swimming around a small pond in the underbrush and diving for small insects with one in particular snapping at mud wasps that were flying around his head. I positioned myself and pointed my camera and kept on eye on my surroundings as the shutter clicked away. This time at least, mother was not around. I made note of the location and decided to call it a day since the sun was going down and it would soon be dark. On my out a noticed an alligator by the side of the creek and on closer look I realized it had a turtle in it’s jaws. I quickly set up my tripod and video camera and well…check it out below. BTW the sounds were not edited in…this is raw footage with live sound.
I returned to the same area the next morning and to my surprise the baby alligators were nowhere to be seen. I listened intently…nothing but the sound of cicadas buzzing in the trees above. A more soothing sound to be sure but not the sound I was hoping for. I walked around some more and moved deeper into the woods and then I saw it. The unmistakable mound of an alligator nest was right in front of me not to far from another small pond. I stopped and waited glancing over my shoulder very now and them to make sure I didn’t get surprised from behind. The last thing I wanted to do was get in the way of a mother alligator and her nest. Every twig snapping and every branch blowing in the breeze took on a sinister tone and seemed to echo through the woods. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not afraid of alligators…never have been. I grew up around alligators and they have always been a part of my life. When you’re dealing with a female alligator guarding her nest things are a little different. Especially when you don’t know where she is. The rules have changed. I set up my tripod just to be prepared in case the mother showed up and positioned my video camera to face the nest. I figured I could get some video footage as well as some photos. I continued to wait.
I consider myself a very observant person, especially in the wild. You have to be and not just so you can get a photo. It’s very important to be aware of your surroundings not only for your own safety, but to ensure you leave as little a footprint as possible. This time though, I failed miserably. What I didn’t know while I was waiting for the mother alligator to show up was that she was there the entire time. I noticed a movement in the underbrush near the nest and realized that the dark shape that was near the nest had moved. I watched fascinated as one of the largest female alligators I had ever seen drew herself up and walked towards her nest with every step bringing her closer to me. I was looking at the Queen of the Swamp I thought. The adrenaline flowed as she got closer and then I watched as she settled herself on top of her nest and peered at me with watchful eyes. I relaxed and all I could do for those first few minutes was watch her and marvel at nature’s beauty and design. And savagery…let’s not forget the savagery.
I snapped a few photos of her on her nest and then waited to see what would happen next. I had already filmed some video so I was good to go. I sat there for a couple of hours and then the light started fading. I got another shot of her as dusk settled in and then decided it was time to leave. The photos and video I captured that day remain some of my favorites that I’ve ever done. Both the videos and photos documented an amazing moment in the wild and one that I’ll never forget.
Unfortunately, I was not present when the nest hatched but since I already had footage of several nests hatching I was not upset. I figured I owed her some privacy after the intrusion into her world. I did return a few times over the next few weeks and photographed her and her babies until one day they weren’t there anymore. Female alligators frequently move their young to new locations for safety and even though they disappeared I wasn’t upset. You see, I was able to photograph the Queen of the Swamp and come face to face with a creature that has remained relatively unchanged since prehistoric times. They are living dinosaurs and endlessly fascinating to me.
-Mark Andrew Thomas