Going After Gators
By Dr. Wayne Lynch
March 23, 2013
When I'm considering the topic for a new book project I always start by asking myself three questions. First, are there many other books on the same subject. If there are, it may mean the market is saturated. If there are none or very few, either I have a fresh new book idea ripe for publication, or the topic is a dud and my eventual royalties may be just enough to buy a large coffee and a box of chocolate-glazed Timbits to drown my sorrows.
Second, is the topic an expensive one to research and photograph, and will there be large travel costs. After 34 years in the business and more than 50 published books, I've only had to shelve one book idea because of the expense and difficulty of the project. The topic was "Grouse of the World : A Guide to Their Biology & Ecology". When I first decided to pursue the idea I had already photographed all 10 of the grouse species in North America. That left just the 7 species in Eurasia. So in the mid 1990s off I went to Sweden for 4 weeks. Six thousand dollars later I had only three or four decent photos to show for my efforts. If this was what it was like in Sweden, what could I expect with the grouse in Russia, the Republic of Georgia and in China? I packed it in and killed the idea.
The third question I ask myself with any new book project is whether the topic is exciting and fun to photograph, and will I come away afterwards with some meaningful life experiences that will justify the venture even if book sales are disappointing. Question number three carries the most weight for me and explains why I'm now in the second year of an my latest book project Alligator: Ancient Reptile in a Modern World, and the photography and science has been every bit as thrilling as I hoped it would be.
Eating a Gar
Preying on Crayfish
Adult Cannibalizing Hatchling
I expect to work one more year on the alligator book, and in the end I'll have worked in three areas: Florida, Georgia and Louisiana. At the beginning, the first thing I did was to buy every book on alligators published in the last 30 years to see what others had done and how I could make my book fresh and different. In summary, the range of behavior depicted was limited, no one had worked extensively with digital cameras, few had photographed at close range with wide angle lenses, and none had photographed underwater. So there was my challenge and it's been a great ride.
Hatchling resting on mothers head
Until about 7 years ago I was strictly a topside photographer. Although I have been a scuba diver since 1973 I
never seriously photographed underwater until 2006. Then after several vacation trips to Florida I worked for the next
four winters on photographing Florida manatees and that book The Florida Manatee: A Complete Guide to Their Biology, Ecology and Conservation will be published in 2015 by Johns Hopkins University Press, the same publisher I'm working with for the alligator book.
Adult entering the water
Florida manatees are big teddy bears underwater that sometimes curiously approach you and tug on your flippers.
I didn't think I wanted alligators to do the same but I really didn't know what to expect once I got in the water with them.
The solution? Talk to Dr. Kent Vliet at the University of Florida who is an expert on alligators and my collaborator on this
book project. From Kent I received Alligator Behavior 101. His two biggest recommendations for photographing alligators underwater were to photograph in the winter months when the animals were sluggish and not hunting because the water temperature is cold and avoid being in the water during the April/May mating season when large male alligators are aggressive and territorial. So off I went and the accompanying photographs tell the story.
Adult surveying the shoreline
Resting on the bottom
The camera gear I used for above-water shooting was a Nikon D700 and D300S, and a selection of Nikkor lenses ranging from a wide-angle 12-24 mm zoom up to a 500 mm f/4 telephoto. For underwater photography I used a Nikon D300S in an Ikelite housing with a single Ikelite DS51 Substrobe. I'm not really skilled at using an underwater flash and occasionally in my excitement I positioned the flash too close to the camera and got backscatter when the flash illuminated particulate matter in the water.
Hatchling on water lettuce
As the warnings state at the beginning of some wildlife television programs, "Working with dangerous wild animals can ruin your whole day and should never be attempted by viewers at home." So it is with alligators. I recommend you enjoy them from a distance.
Bio: Wayne's alligator book will be published in 2015 by Johns Hopkins University Press. His two most recent books are Planet Arctic: Life at the Top of the World, 2010, and Polar Bears: A Complete Guide to their Biology and Behavior, 2012.
Dr. Wayne Lynch
3779 Springbank Drive S. W.
Calgary, AB, T3H J5
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