Conservation photographers have all the fun!
Octavio Aburto is a Mexican photographer and marine biologist, based at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, and is a fellow with The International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). During a recent expedition, he had an up-close and personal interaction with an unexpected model.
In May 2013 I had an expedition to Banco Chinchorro, an unique and fragile atoll located 35 km offshore in the Mexican Caribbean Sea, near the border between Mexico and Belize. The atoll has three main islands, with an aggregate land area of 6.7 square kilometers, and the natural vegetation of the islands is largely mangrove near the shore shading into open woodland more than 20–30 m from the shore.
More importantly, this atoll has, genetically speaking, the purest population of American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) - meaning that the population has not hybridized with other crocodile subspecies. It has been shown that it is the purest population remaining in the Meso-American reef region, with more than 250 individuals leaving in this atoll.
We wanted to explore the area and find this animals in its natural habitats. We knew that they use the mangrove forest to hide, so we wanted to explore these forests and try to find them inside the mangrove roots. However, we were only able to see them in the seagrass prairies.
There are a few fishers' shacks at the mouth of one cove, where I found the most important crocodile activities. After some interviews with the fishermen they told me that in the afternoons the crocodiles look for fish carcasses below their shacks. So I spent almost 10 afternoons there looking for a crocodile encounter.
It was shallow so I snorkeled all the time. I hid under one shack closes to the mangrove forest. Between the shack and the mangroves there was a seagrass prairie. There I had around 10 meters of visibility, but in the afternoon it was difficult to see beyond 3 or 4 meters, so when I saw a crocodile for the first time, it was almost right in front of me. I had to stay calm so the crocodile couldn't detect my presence. Most of the time however, the crocodiles returned to hiding into the mangrove before I was able to capture them on camera.
One time, however, I was concentrating, aiming my camera toward the mangrove, and I did not realize that a crocodile came at me from behind. When I turned around, it was nearly over me, and I had to wedge my camera between the crocodile and myself. Although there was very little time to think about what was happening, I never felt that the animal would attack me. I started taking pictures while the crocodile was trying to come back to its refuge. It was almost dusk and I was able to take the pictures with a very nice light. I really think that the animal was as surprised as I was, and I am glad that we both came out of the encounter startled but safe.
Now that is a rush. We don't recommend you try this at home...