Photograph by David Doubilet
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Photographer Jennifer Hayes is visited by a curious crocodile while photographing in the mangroves of the Gardens of the Queen National Park in the Caribbean.

Photograph by David Doubilet

What Should You Do If a Crocodile’s Mouth Is Inches From Your Head?

Take a picture, according to photographers Jennifer Hayes and David Doubilet.

I see one thing when I see crocodiles up close and personal: ancient engineering. These guys and gals are living dinosaurs which survived mass extinctions and who knows, with their good luck and simple but elegant design they may out-survive humans.

My photographic partner and husband, David Doubilet, and I were working in a mangrove channel in the Gardens of the Queen National Park. This marine reserve is an archipelago of islets, mangroves, and reefs located fifty miles south of Cuba. Its isolation and vigilant protection has created a Caribbean time capsule of robust reefs crowded with fish and clear water mangroves that support healthy populations of crocodiles.

I was obsessed with a strange and wonderful jellyfish floating above me in the mangroves when David made a loud noise through his regulator and began swimming toward me.

Submerged in the sun-dappled mangrove waters, American crocodiles glide past schools of silversides and turtle grass — and come face to face with photographer Jennifer Hayes.

I turned to greet a crocodile just inches away from my face. My reptile visitor, used to human encounters, was slow and unaggressive but the situation could change in an instant and David wanted to warn me.

We have worked with Nile crocs in Botswana, saltwater crocs in Australia and American crocodiles in Cuba. I was excited to turn and see this docile American crocodile visitor up close. I would not have been to be face to face with a Nile or Salty. These species are anything but docile and the encounter would likely have been negative…for me.

People have asked if I was angry that David took a picture of my encounter with a crocodile when he should have been trying to “save” me. My answer is this: I would have killed David if he had not taken the photograph. I did not feel threatened. I was a visitor in this creature’s environment and it was compelled to investigate what the fuss was all about. Then he left entirely unimpressed.

It was the kind of encounter you hope for on assignment. You are inside the moment, not afraid but thrilled to see such creature so close on their terms.

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The American crocodile lives in the dense mangroves within the Gardens of the Queen, National Marine Park.