The American Crocodiles of Cuba

CROCODILES AND ALLIGATORS can be seen all over the world in many tropical and subtropical regions. However, these relics of the dinosaur age are mostly unpredictable and aggressive, and getting into the water to photograph these amazing predators can be a somewhat hazardous operation.

Also read: ‘Wrong place, wrong time’: diver whose head was in croc’s jaws

American Crocodile Characteristics

The American crocodile, however, is far less aggressive than many other species. It is unlikely to attack anything much bigger than a small dog.

This, of course, does not mean that getting into the water with one of these animals is entirely safe and that no harm could possibly come to you. These crocodiles are predators, and like any animal that kills for food, a lack of respect and knowledge of their behaviour could easily lead to a very dangerous situation.

When you are face-to-face with a 3m-long American crocodile and the lens or dome-port of your camera housing is all but touching the business end of these many-toothed creatures, you are very much aware that a crocodile is a carnivore.

This crocodile certainly is a prehistoric-looking creature, which can be distinguished from its close relative, the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), by the several differences. It has a longer and thinner snout, its colouration is lighter and, when the jaws are closed, two long teeth on its lower jaw overlap the upper jaw.

One hundred miles off the south-east coast of Cuba lies an archipelago called Jardines de la Reina which, translated from the Spanish, means “Gardens of the Queen”. The small islets that make up this archipelago are mostly sandbanks with stands of mangroves, and living among these mangroves are a small number of American crocodiles, which feed upon the fish that use the mangrove roots as their nursery.

A small number of floating barges and boats are used by divers and fishermen who make the six-hour trek from the mainland to be rewarded with spectacular underwater photography, and great among the crew of this operation is Gustavo Lopez Sanchez, a Cuban dive-guide who has been working on the archipelago since 2008.

During this time he has made contact with several of these magnificent reptiles, and one in particular, called Nino, responds to his voice when he calls his name. It is an incredible sight when you venture out on a small skiff with Gustavo standing on the bow calling “Nino, Nino.”

The whole situation really is quite bizarre and, as you look around, you may be forgiven for thinking that this guy is crazy. However, more often than not, within a few minutes the croc can be seen moving towards us across the water with its unmistakable snaking action, only his eyes and nostrils breaking the surface.

Nino is just a baby at four years old, but at 3m and with a huge array of really quite large and very white teeth, it is an amazing experience to slide into the water with a camera, protected by its underwater housing, and move to within inches of this magnificent apex predator.

Nino allowed several of us to get in the water and get some “up close and personal” images, though we were careful to ensure that it was only one person at a time and that we were moving very gently, with no jerky movements whatsoever.

American crocodiles can be found along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of southern Mexico to as far south as Peru and Venezuela. They inhabit many of the Caribbean islands and parts of the southern coast of the United States.

It is one of the few crocodile species that tends to prefer the salinity of sea water to the fresh water of lakes and rivers. As a result, it is usually found in brackish lakes or mangrove swamps, such as those on the archipelago of Jardines de la Reina.

The American crocodile can also be found in coastal areas and they have been known to move into river systems. They have become so well-adapted to living in salt water that some populations can be found in hypersaline lakes.

Crocodiles are cold-blooded, or ectothermic, and therefore need a warm environment to be able to survive. They have to control their own temperature, keeping warm by lying in the sun and cooling off by sliding into the water.

They are also known to use a process called “gaping”, which is where they lie with their mouths open to help keep them cool. It is very easy to understand that this action has been mistaken for aggressive behaviour in the past, but it really is just one of several ways for the crocodiles to regulate their body temperature.

Nino is still quite small for a male American crocodile, as a full-grown male can be more than 6m long and weigh close to 1000kg.

Realistically, however, an average male, when fully grown, is more likely to be 4-5m long and weigh around 400kg. Like all crocodile species, the females are smaller and it is unusual for one to exceed 4m.

The idea & the book

WHEN WE WERE FIRST ASKED to write World’s Best Wildlife Dive Sites, we carefully studied our portfolio to see which of the dive sites we had already recorded, and then looked at what we needed in order to be able to create a definitive guide to our favourite dive sites around the world.

We also needed to make sure that we could fulfil the criteria outlined to us by the publisher.

As photo-journalists for dive magazines and the national press, as well as having run dive-shops at home in Manchester and in the Caribbean, we had a lot of experience in scouring the globe for underwater wildlife.

Our media company Frogfish Photography has been running for over 10 years and in that time we have accumulated over 5 terabytes’ worth of high-resolution images.

We were given 12 months to complete the task, and while we knew that it would be a challenge, which it was, we hadn’t quite realised just how much work we had set ourselves.

We are not asking for sympathy; it is a job that thousands of people would love to be offered and we did, of course, have a fabulous time trying to accumulate all the images and stories you can see in the 32 chapters within this book.

The title of the book is emotive in itself, and I can guarantee that there will be chapters that readers will challenge as being unworthy of inclusion. However, choosing the World’s Best Wildlife Dive Sites is, by its very nature, a subjective decision.

In order to mitigate this, we have provided a fact panel in which we have included alternative dive sites for the key species that we have focused on.

Having made the decision on which dive sites and creatures we wanted to include in the publication, we set about organising the travel and the logistics to collect the images.

As every diver knows, however, you can arrive at your chosen dive location and even if you have a week to get all the images you need, Mother Nature hasn’t necessarily read the script.

There are some dive sites, for example, where we ended up only having one dive to get the images and, fortunately, it worked.

The hammerheads of Bimini were a prime example of this, as it had been stormy for the previous two days, stirring up the water and sand, and we really did have just the one chance to get what we wanted. In contrast, we spent a week on the Neptune Islands with Andrew Fox, only to coincide with the worst weather that they have had in South Australia for some time.

As a result, while we got some lovely images of great white sharks in the distance, only very few of these would be suitable for this publication.

Fortunately for us, Andrew is an excellent photographer and he donated several of his great white images for this chapter.

One of the most difficult judgments we had to make was regarding which were the “best” 32 wildlife dive sites that should be included. Again it was a totally subjective decision.

As we had only limited time available, some of the decisions were obvious because we had already visited what we considered to be 20 of the best dive sites from the bucket-list we produced for ourselves some 10 years ago.

It was the final dozen sites that caused the most soul-searching and we came up with a list of 25 locations for potential inclusion.

There are bound to be readers screaming at the book and denouncing us for not including their own favourite places.

We will continue with our quest to find another selection of dive sites and perhaps there will be a second volume of this book to follow in the future.

World’s Best Wildlife Dive Sites by Nick & Caroline Robertson-Brown is published in hardback by Reed New Holland at £19.99, and is available from all good bookshops.

Or call 01206 255777 quoting WWD1 to purchase a copy at the special price of £17.99, including free p&p.


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