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Photographing an Icon: The American Alligator
By Matthew Sullivan, February 28, 2024 @ 10:00 AM (EST)

The toothy grin of a large American alligator resting on the bottom of a cypress dome, Florida, USA (Sony a9, Nikonos RS 13mm f/1.8 fisheye, Seafrogs housing, dual Kraken Sports KS160 strobes, f/8, 1/20s, ISO 800)
 

DISCLAIMER: I do not recommend approaching with or swimming with alligators anywhere.

In the lakes, swamps, and rivers of the American southeast lurks an icon. The American alligator is among the most recognizable animals on Earth. Their size, prehistoric (legitimately) appearance, and fearsome reputation all combine to make alligators a popular species. Considering alligator-type animals witnessed the rise of Tyrannosaurus rex, it is pretty remarkable that they have stuck around long enough to witness the rise of Homo sapiens. As with any large predator, humans and alligators have a bit of a strained relationship and conflict between the two species is unsurprising.

Fortunately, American alligator populations are doing quite well throughout much of their range, and in certain places, encountering one, or several, is a guarantee. That being said, it has long been a goal of mine to photograph an alligator underwater and despite their prevalence in South Florida, that has proven far more difficult than I’d imagined. It is not overly common to find gators in clear water conducive to photography and even less common to find one bold enough to hang around to have its picture taken. They are surprisingly skittish in the water.

A good friend, Josh Raia, and I decided one day to make a concerted effort to go find and photograph one. We went to a place we have been countless times before and had never been successful. It is easy to find the animals, but getting pictures had proven impossible. The first several hours of our day continued this trend. We found plenty of alligators, but our images were mediocre (at best).
 

A typical “successful” attempt at photographing an alligator underwater. This individual, which I have come across several times, is about six feet long, Florida, USA
 

Undeterred, but by this point convinced that we would not be successful, we kept traveling deeper and deeper into the cypress swamps. Eventually, we came across an open area with a huge alligator basking on the edge of the clearing and a school of gar gathered just beneath the surface. The alligator was easily the largest we had seen all day, conservatively around 11 feet long. We figured we would make the attempt and if she bailed on us, we could at least photograph the gar and salvage the outing.

I donned my suit and mask, grabbed my camera, and dipped a single toe into the water—immediately the alligator disappeared into the murk. I said that I was going to swim around the pool to make sure she was actually gone, and then we could attempt to photograph the gar. As I approached an overhanging tree with a dark trough beneath it, I could make out the tail of the alligator facing the other direction. I figured so long as one of us kept an eye on her to make sure she didn't move, we could likely photograph the gar. I called to Josh and told him the gator was here but that I thought we could still shoot the gar. I ducked back down to get another look at her and all of a sudden realized that while her tail was in fact facing the other dirction, she was curled around and her massive head was facing me. She was looking right at me!

I have been in the water with two dozen shark species, 2,500-pound Stellar’s sea lions, orcas, sperm whales, and so on, but none of these came close to the intimidation factor of this most impressive reptile. Photographing the gar immediately went out the window, and I asked Josh if he wanted to try photographing the alligator with me. He agreed and joined me in the water. We stood on a shallower sandy bank a few feet away and pep-talked each other into who would attempt to take pictures first. After 10 minutes and with my heart pounding out of my chest, I went first. I took a breath and sunk down to her, slowly inching closer and closer, taking pictures as I went. She never budged. For the next half hour, we were able to make pictures of her, and other than blowing a string of bubbles one time, she never even moved. For all we know, she might have been fast asleep. A lifelong dream had come true and one of the most incredible wildlife experiences of my life. We drove home ecstatic, and with sky-high adrenaline, the four-hour ride home passed in a flash.
 

Josh face to face with an approximately 11-foot American alligator, deep in the Florida Everglades ecosystem
 


 

Matthew Sullivan is a Florida-based wildlife photographer who has been diving since he was 10 years old. He has traveled extensively, visiting well-known dive destinations such as Guadalupe Island, Indonesia and the Philippines, but he also likes to dive closer to home in the Florida. When not taking pictures underwater, he can be found trekking mountains, or exploring national parks and rainforests in search of new adventures and wildlife encounters.

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