National Geographic : 2018 Jun
David Doubilet: Gardens of the Queen National Park is a marine sanctuary formed by a necklace of keys, mangrove islets, and reefs about 60 miles south of mainland Cuba. On a previous assignment with my wife and photographic partner, Jennifer Hayes, we’d documented healthy coral reefs pulsing with fish and sharks, and mangroves patrolled by crocodiles. We knew that time, increased tourism, and climate change could alter the 850-square-mile national park—so 15 years later, we returned to see how it was faring. We were in a mangrove channel photographing Cassiopeia, aka the upside-down jellyfish. Jennifer, her back to me, was focused on a specimen above her. Out of the corner of my viewfinder, I saw a sizable American crocodile drifting downstream. As I began to take its photograph, I realized that the crocodile was going to drift directly between Jennifer and me. I started to make loud noises through my regula- tor and moved toward Jen, firing a burst of flash-lit shots to warn her that we had company. She quickly detected my signal and turned to meet our visitor. Jennifer Hayes: I found myself face-to-snout with an American crocodile. Both surprised and very pleased, I greeted him through my regulator. DD: She gave me a quick thumbs-up, nodded OK, BY DAVID DOUBILET AND JENNIFER HAYES A Chance Meeting EXPLORE | THROUGH THE LENS A MARINE SANCTUARY TEEMS WITH LIFE, INCLUDING A CURIOUS CROCODILE. A PHOTOGRAPHER HAS JUST SECONDS TO DECIDE: INTERVENE OR TAKE A PICTURE? and burbled an audible “Helloooo, handsome” as she bent closer to take its portrait. I marveled as she addressed the crocodile with respect, calm curios- ity, and absolute joy. She settled in to capture the moment without missing a beat. JH: I didn’t feel threatened. For several days I’d watched these crocodiles wander about, investigate things in the mangroves, chase fish in circles for fun, and sleep within view of us. Many of them swam with snorkelers on a daily basis. I felt familiar with their behavior—and I had a big SEACAM underwater hous- ing that could double as a mighty shield if needed. But I want to be clear: I was comfortable with this species of crocodile in this particular place at that particular time. I would not have been comfortable with a more aggressive species, such as a Nile or saltwater crocodile, in a different environment. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PRODUCED THIS CONTENT AS PART OF A ROLEX–NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PARTNERSHIP.