Hungry alligator

Reckon you’re rough on gear? Think again

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The photographic world brims with hard-luck stories of photographers losing thousands of dollars worth of gear in the heat of image-making. Often the stories can be usefully conflated into tales that wow friends and, years later, may actually make the horrifying loss seem worthwhile. Other stories yield little in the way of narrative value—a bag lost on a plane, a lens lost under a taxi seat.

But consider the story of Mario Aldecoa and a tale so large it might have been utterly unbelievable if the camera had not been returned by the subject that stole it.

Aldecoa, a reptile biologist turned photographer, has been involved in alligator and crocodile research in the Florida Everglades for many years, most recently on staff at the Everglades Alligator Farm where a breeding pond in the centre of the property holds some 200 American alligators—some up to three metres long.

“I had an image in mind for a while of the alligators at night with their eyes shining,” says Aldecoa. “When lit by a lamp or a flash they look like lots of reddish-orange bulbs.” His opportunity came during a staff party one evening. After dark he slipped away and walked to the breeding pond where hundreds of alligators lay in wait, and positioned his camera on a tripod about a foot from the water’s edge.

The alligators “didn’t seem to be aggressive,” he says casually. “They came up to me assuming they were going to be fed. I just patted them on snout, and they backed away.” Aldecoa crouched behind the camera and squeezed the cable release, taking a few frames to balance the ambient light that would reveal the stars in the sky, with the flash to illuminate the eyes of the alligators.

“Crocodilians such as alligators are generally more active at night,” he writes with perfect hindsight in a blog post last month. “With excellent vision that catches and reflects any available light, they hunt and ambush unsuspecting prey.”

In retrospect, Aldecoa was ‘unsuspecting’ too. “I was messing around with the exposure and flash. All my attention was on the camera. I fired another shot, the flash went off… and the ‘gator lunged.”

The alligator grabbed the camera and Aldecoa seized the tripod leg. “For a moment I was pulling, and he was pulling, then the leg snapped off the tripod.” Aldecoa’s Canon 60D camera, his prized 16–35mm lens, and remains of the tripod disappeared—thrashing—into the water.

“Everything happened so quickly,” he says, but reality soon set in. “I got a bit spooked, then thought, alright, there’s nothing else I can do.”

Aldecoa wandered back into the pond the next day, scouring the bottom with a rake, but it was futile, his gear was gone.

Eight months later, a keeper at the farm was giving a feeding presentation to tourists when an enormous alligator wandered out of the pond with the camera bound around its leg by the strap. Staff retrieved the camera, and called Aldecoa.

“It was pretty beat up,” he says. It was covered in mud and teeth marks, it was buckled and full of silt. Nevertheless Aldecoa extracted and cleaned the SanDisk memory card, and the last pictures his camera had captured materialised before his eyes.

“It was a crappy situation, but now it’s kind of amazing. The odds of an alligator bringing the camera back out of water are incredible,” he says. “The lesson I learned was not to be over-confident working with any animal. Reptiles are not to be trusted, not with cameras.”

See more at: marioaldecoa.smugmug.com