As I was walking down a trail at one of our local state parks last
year, I came across a gentleman lying on the ground. Worried that he
was injured I ran over to him, noticing also the tripod and camera set
up a few feet away. My
initial concern was quickly replaced as I saw he was not hurt, but rather
had his arm shoved down a gopher tortoise burrow, all the way up to
his shoulder. I cleared my throat to get his attention, and asked if
everything was okay. He replied, ”Yeah, this turtle just went
down this hole, I want to see if I can pull him out to get a picture
of him”. He figured he would just pull it out and set up in a
good spot to get a few shots. Shocked into silence I did not know how
to respond to him, this was someone who had a much different set of
ethics than I did for dealing with wildlife, and also did not know a
whole lot about gopher tortoises and their “roommates”.
Taking a deep breath, I then asked him how much he knew about gopher
tortoises. He gave me a funny look, arm still in hole, and said “Not
much.” So I told him that the gopher tortoise burrow is shared
by many other animals (one study found 360 different species used gopher
tortoise burrows as shelter). Still getting the funny look, I then said
one such animal that particularly favors it is the Eastern Diamondback
Rattlesnake, and I saw a 6 foot one not 20 yards from this burrow two
days ago”. I have rarely seen a human move this fast, but he was
able to go from prone to standing 10 feet away from the hole in the
blink of an eye. Then I had the dilemma of whether to tell him about
the poison ivy patch he had landed in or not…
I know the vast majority of nature photographers would not do this,
and many know far more about the natural world than most people, including
myself. But this incident, and a few others like it, inspired me to
write about the flora and fauna of Florida, and provide some guidelines
when out in the field of what to do, and especially what not to do,
when it comes to Florida’s’ native wildlife.
Background (and a Little Ranting)
Florida is home to a large variety of habitats, possibly more than
any state in the US. Within these habitats are a diverse array of creatures
and plants. Filling unique niches in their ecosystems, some of the flora
and fauna have developed natural characteristics or defenses which can
injure or sicken someone who comes into contact with them. Florida is
also home to over 17 million people, and attracts over 76 million visitors
each year. Too often these residents and visitors come into conflict
with the resident flora and fauna. When this occurs the media often
sensationalizes these incidents, blowing out of proportion the actual
danger from wild animal encounters, while leaving true daily dangers
generally underreported. While any loss of life is tragic, a single
shark fatality in Florida this year received three days worth of front
page headlines and “team coverage” from every TV station.
Meanwhile the 1000’s of annual fatal car accidents get no mention
or maybe a line buried in the paper. This helps feed a culture of misinformation
and misunderstanding of the animals involved in these conflicts.
The chances of injury from a wild animal are very small, and can largely
be minimized with education, preparation, awareness, and respect. This
article covers the first of the Florida “headline” animals,
species which people are generally scared of, or ones which make front
page news if there is a conflict. Generally misunderstood, it is important
to dispel myths about these animals, and recognize the actual danger
from them. Whether you are a resident or visiting photographer, knowing
what you may encounter and the best ways to handle such encounters will
help ensure the safety of both you and the creatures you run into.
Crocodilians are an important part of Florida's ecology and natural
history. Florida is home to two native species; the American Alligator
and the American Crocodile, and one introduced species: the Spectacled
American Crocodile: The crocodile is classified as
endangered, with an estimated 500-1000 living in South Florida. In addition
to South Florida, the crocodile is native to 17 other Central and South
American countries, and is endangered throughout its range. The crocodile
prefers brackish waters, and is distinguished from the Alligator by
its narrow snout and visible fourth tooth. It can grow larger then the
American Alligator, on average up to 15 ft and 450 pounds. Because of
the shy and reclusive nature of crocodiles, they generally do not pose
a problem for humans.
American Alligator: The American Alligator was on the
verge of extinction in the 1970’s but has made an amazing comeback
thanks to protection and conservation efforts. There are now estimated
to be over a million alligators in the wild. They are still protected,
federally classified as “threatened due to similarity of appearance”
to other endangered and threatened crocodilians. Adult Alligators typically
reach 10-13 feet and 400 pounds, and are typically found in freshwater.
|Which is the ‘gator?
|The animal on the left is an American Alligator,
the animal on the right is an American Crocodile; both are
adults. On the ‘gator, note the shorter broader snout
and pale color of the underside of the jaw. On the croc, note
the darker color and large exposed teeth.
Spectacled Caiman: Probably introduced to Florida
by releases or escapes from the exotic pet industry, the Spectacled
Caiman has established breeding populations in two counties in Southern
Florida. The Caiman may grow up to 8 feet in length although most specimens
in Florida are 6 feet or less. They inhabit freshwater marshes, ponds,
lakes, and canals. The Caiman is generally secretive but can be very
aggressive when cornered.
Crocodilians are generally the top predator in Florida’s wetlands,
playing a vital role by maintaining population balance in the species
they prey on. They are opportunistic aquatic predators, hunting prey
that is in, or adjacent to, water. Alligators sometimes attack pets
and livestock, especially if it is confined or otherwise unable to escape.
Dogs in particular are susceptible as their size is often similar to
a crocodilian’s typical prey and their splashing when swimming
attracts the ‘gator. Humans are also occasionally attacked, and
in very rare instances, are killed by large alligators. As of May 2005,
only 344 attacks on humans have been recorded in Florida since 1948,
17 of which have been fatal. A majority of these attacks were by large
alligators, 9ft or more, and most involved swimmers in fresh water.
Despite beliefs to the contrary, most attacks are not on children, they
are on adults. Several of the ‘gators had also been fed by people
prior to the attacks. No attacks by American Crocodiles have been recorded.
- LEAVE IT ALONE! - Never feed or entice crocodilians.
It is dangerous and it is illegal. When fed, crocodilians will lose
their natural wariness of man and learn to associate people with food.
Often these animals will become aggressive in trying to get handouts,
leading to their being classified as a nuisance, trapped, removed,
and probably destroyed.
- Spread the Word - If you see others feeding alligators
politely tell them it is illegal and creates dangers for others who
are in or around the water. I tell people I am a nature photographer,
and would really appreciate if they did not feed the gators, as I
would really like them not to chew on me when I am out taking pictures.
Most people after a little explanation of why it is dangerous will
stop. Those that don’t should be reported to authorities.
- Be Alert - around fresh or brackish water. Learn
to recognize the signs of these species, such as tracks, slides, nests
etc. Keep a safe distance from the waters edge if you think a large
‘gator may be present. Although alligators are capable of running
short distances, they use this to flee threats, not chase prey. There
is no documented evidence of alligators running after human
beings to prey upon them. Also, there is no basis
to the myth that you should run in zigzag patterns to avoid a charging
alligator. In the extremely unlikely event a gator lunges
at you from the water, run straight away from it and its habitat.
- Swim safe – If you really feel the need to
swim in freshwater instead of in one of the millions of swimming pools
dotting this state, do not swim outside of posted swimming areas or
in waters that might be inhabited by large alligators. Also, alligators
are most active between dusk and dawn, so swim only during daylight
hours. That means no midnight skinny-dipping (besides, no one needs
to see that anyway…).
- Can It – If you decide to put the camera
down and pick up a fishing pole, be sure you dispose of fish scraps
in garbage cans, not in the water. Being opportunistic predators,
alligators will wait for these scraps; the end result though is just
the same as feeding them, a dependence on man for food.
- Its that time of the year – When you visit
be aware alligators are more active in the late spring and summer
than in any other season of the year. It is the beginning of the mating
season, they are feeding more after their dormant winter season, and
they are on the move to new water holes as the dry season ends. Most
human-gator interactions occur this time of year, which is also part
of the prime photography season in Florida.
Taking their picture
Crocodilians can be a difficult subject to capture a good image of.
Here are a few points to consider and tips for photographing these creatures.
While you can probably find a ‘gator to photograph in just about any freshwater
in Florida, remember the most important thing is be safe. Places like
Shark Valley, Myakka River, or the St. Augustine Alligator Farm are ideal
if you want to see and photograph ‘gators from relative safety.
Remember to always keep your distance, be alert to the animal’s
behavior, and respect them.
- What a body - Their body shape
and size tends to make your composition choices a little more
challenging. When they are spread out to their full length it
is not easy to always get their full body in the frame unless
you compose more of a habitat shot. Otherwise, you can get creative
with shooting just parts of the animal; head, tail etc. However,
if working just the head also note the length from snout to
back of head. If the head is not perpendicular to your camera,
you will need more depth of field to get the entire head in
- Exposure - Since they are
an aquatic predator, gators are often in various stages of being
wet. This can dramatically change their appearance and how you
expose an image of them. When wet their skin becomes darker
and very shiny, making for a very high contrast shot. When dry
they will take on a duller appearance, although flash can still
bring out a shine on parts of their skin. When their skin is
dry or they are sunning on land I like to use a little fill
flash to even out the shadows. When in the water, I like a bright
diffused light to even out the contrast. Go ahead and experiment
with fill flash, just remember you will get a lot of shine if
they are wet, and can face red eye problems at certain times
of the day. If shooting digital, when checking your histogram
do not be surprised to see blown highlights on their teeth.
Generally, don’t worry about this unless you are doing
a macro shot of the tooth (strongly not recommended!). There
is no detail to capture there anyway, and compensating for this
will result in the ‘gator skin looking way to dark.
|Wet vs. Dry
|Notice how the top of this gator’s
head is dry and a light colored dull green, versus the
dark shiny color of the snout where it is wet. When
shooting gators, you need to compensate based on whether
they are wet or dry, and sometimes both.
- Tough Life - The territorial
nature of crocodilians shows in the “battle scars”
they often sport. They may be missing eyes, limbs, or have other
disfigurements that you have to work with. Sometimes I like
to include them, they can tell a story about the often brutal
lives these animals lead. Other times you will need to work
around them, working different angles to hide the disfigurement.
- Wait for it... – ‘Gators
spend a lot of time doing, well, nothing. Watching a ‘gator
sunning can be about as exciting as a watching a rock. If you
have the time, wait for behavioral shots. Eventually they will
move, and it’s those moments that can give you unique
and interesting compositions. Try to catch them as they enter
or exiting the water, or in the spring when the males are combative
with each other. On a hot day watch for venting, when they get
warm enough they will tip their head back and open up those
try this at home!
|We are what you call “trained
About the Author
Jason Hahn is a Tampa Bay based nature photographer and a Florida Master
Naturalist, whose work has been featured both locally and nationally.
While he has never stuck his arm down a gopher tortoise hole, he has worked
up close and personal with gators and other crocodilians, both in the
wild and in captivity. You can contact Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org,
or visit his website, www.jasonhahn.com
for pictures of ‘gators, crocs, and the many other animals that
make Florida such a great place to be a photographer.