Behind the Scenes of a Close Crocodile Encounter

A marine sanctuary teems with life, including a curious crocodile. A photographer has just seconds to decide: intervene or take a picture?

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.

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