Gators as a Rule
It happens nearly every time I'm photographing birds at a wildlife refuge in the Southeast. Someone will pass by, see my camera on a tripod pointed into the sky or toward the top of a tall tree, and ask me if I've seen any alligators.
I'm usually polite and restrain myself from pointing where my camera is and saying, "Well, not up there." Smart ass doesn't always go over well with strangers, especially in the South.
I've found that straightforward factual doesn't necessarily generate much better reactions from the questioner.
"I haven't really been looking for them," I told one young guy at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. "To be honest, I don't find them all that interesting. They just sit there like logs." The guy scowled and drove off as his pretty girlfriend laughed. I had a feeling she had told him something similar not long before.
But it's true. Sorry, but most of the gators I see are doing what gators do about 99 percent of the time: nothing. In summer, they are as likely as not to lie in the water with little more than the top of their heads protruding from the water, motionless, in a perfect Zen state. On warm days in the cooler seasons, they may haul themselves onto a bank and lie motionless in the sun, soaking up radiation and vitamin D.
So, as a rule, I don't pay much attention to alligators other than to be sure I'm not about to set my tripod up on top of one, which might cause action of a sort I'd rather not see (and probably wouldn't get a chance to photograph).
But there are exceptions to every rule. One day last summer as I was following the Wildlife Drive that winds along the old rice dikes in Savannah Wildlife Refuge, I came across a genuine spectacle near one of the trunks that levels the water between ponds. At least 20 gators were gathered in an area about half the size of my apartment. A couple of other photographers were already there, snapping away. I could see that some of the gators were baring their teeth, which is a little something at least, so I stopped and grabbed a few images.
Suddenly there was an enormous splash, then another, and another. I looked around to see what was going on. Dozens, maybe hundreds of good-sized striped mullet were swimming around in the same area, occasionally jumping out the water, as mullet like to do. In this case, for many, it was a fatal mistake.
Those normally motionless gators responded to the mullet by displaying blazing quickness, lethal accuracy and chilling gruesomeness. I increased my shutter speed and spent the next 30 minutes capturing some of the best action shots I've ever gotten as gators snatched mullet out of the air or right at the surface and feasted like Thanksgiving.
Another exception occurred just a few days ago. It's been freakishly warm most of the winter here in the South Carolina Lowcountry, and gators have been basking in the sun every day at the Pinckney Island NWR near Hilton Head. One in particular has been occupying a sand bar in Starr Pond, where water levels are suffering from a lengthy dry spell.
Yesterday, he was up on the bar much closer to the bank where I was trying to get photos of a mystery duck that's been residing in the same area. Violating my own rule, I aimed my lens in his direction and was delighted to see him lying quite still with his jaws agape, displaying, and perhaps airing, his teeth. And what teeth, ivory white lowers, oddly red uppers (stained from his last meal?). After a bit, he turned his head in my direction and let me shoot right at him. I changed position to get him in profile from even closer, and he continued to cooperate until he got bored, closed his mouth and eyes and went back to sleep.
You can judge the photographic results for yourself.
Meanwhile, my rule of thumb will stay intact, but I'll always take a look and see if that log in the water is showing some photogenic animation.
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