This story appears in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
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 regulator 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, and burbled an audible “Helloooo, handsome” as she bent closer to take its portrait (shown above). I marveled as she addressed the crocodile with respect, calm curiosity, 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 housing 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.
DD: When people see the image of the crocodile behind Jennifer, reactions include wonder, awe, and horror. But after a few frames the croc, unimpressed with us, drifted downstream on its way to do other crocodile things. We continued our quest for jellyfish.
JH: Many people ask if I’m angry that David took a picture instead of trying to “save” me. My answer is this: I would have been unhappy if he had not taken the photos. I was a visitor in this creature’s environment, and it was compelled to investigate. This is what I hope for on assignment—I’m not afraid but thrilled to see such an ancient creature.
DD: There is always risk in our line of work. Jennifer and I have aborted many dives with aggressive animals—for our safety and theirs. But this encounter reinforced the good news that we saw all around us in Gardens of the Queen. The crocodile is an indicator species, a symbol of a healthy marine ecosystem that can support apex predators (unlike overfished and degraded areas elsewhere in the Caribbean).
This preserve is a conservation success because it is actively patrolled and protected. The easing of travel restrictions is bound to bring more tourists—so it’s vital to maintain a balance among ecotourism, exploration, and conservation. That’s possible if visitors adopt the same philosophy that we hold toward that curious crocodile and every other marine creature. We enter Earth’s oceans on their terms, not our own.
Marine biologist Jennifer Hayes and photographer David Doubilet are award-winning collaborators. Doubilet is a Rolex ambassador and a participant in the new partnership Rolex and National Geographic have formed. Its motto, “Committed to a Perpetual Planet,” reflects its mission: to promote conservation and exploration of Earth’s oceans, poles, and mountains.
National Geographic produced this content as part of a Rolex–National Geographic partnership.