Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Painting With Crocodiles
by John N. Agnew

I suppose the title should be, “Painting Among Crocodiles,” since I didn’t use them as painting tools. Instead, I paint pictures of them and their habitat. In 2011, I spent nearly a month in Everglades National Park as Artist In Residence. One of my stated goals was to paint and draw the American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), not to be confused with the American Alligator (Alligator misissippiensis). Both exist in the park, which is the only place in the world where you can see the two species in one place.
The crocs prefer brackish water and can tolerate salt water, having salt removal glands. The alligators stick to mostly fresh water. So, the place to see crocs in the Everglades is in the mangrove areas, and in Florida Bay and the Keys. They are not hard to find in the Park. Flamingo usually has a few on voluntary display, hanging out near the boat docks and canoe rental area. You can also see them in Eco Pond and Nine Mile Pond. It was in Nine Mile Pond where I had some up close and personal encounters with them.

An American Crocodile basking near the boat docks at Flamingo.

I had paddled around in Nine Mile Pond in my inflatable kayak, on my own and with a ranger-led group, and had scouted out a few likely scenes to paint from the kayak. I had seen at least one large American crocodile basking at the water’s edge, but he wasn’t in the vicinity of where I was headed to paint. Not that I especially fear these crocs, but I have a healthy respect for any predator several times my size.

A big croc basking on the shore of Nine Mile Pond

So I loaded up my gear and shoved off, headed to a nicely formed mangrove tree not far from the parking lot. As I rounded the corner near the subject tree, I surprised a large croc that had been basking at the base of my tree. He disappeared with a thrash and splash, and I figured he was gone. I pulled into the channel near the tree, tied off the boat and set up my easel.

Painting from the kayak… the paddle is supporting the French easel, my palette is in my lap. It’s a little tight, but comfortable enough.

After I had been working for awhile, I heard the sound of a large animal drawing a deep breath just behind me. I turned quickly to look over my left shoulder, and caught a glimpse of the croc’s head diving under the water. That was followed by a powerful thrust and splash from the tail, which rocked me in the boat. Hmmm….
No, I don’t really believe the croc was stalking me. I had been sitting very quietly painting in my boat, and the croc probably surfaced nearby completely unaware of me until I turned my head and startled him.  If he had really been stalking me, I believe my sudden movement would have stimulated an attack rather than flight. The only time a croc made me nervous was the day before when I was scouting Nine Mile Pond. I spotted a big croc basking and approached to get some photos. I kept a respectful distance between myself and the croc, especially since he was bigger than my boat. Even so, I seemed to upset him, and he launched himself into the pond with a huge splash. He surfaced out in the middle, and I took some photos of him swimming around. Eventually he seemed to take notice of me again, but this time he seemed curious and began to slowly close the distance between us. This time I backed off and headed for other waters.

An American Crocodile in Nine Mile Pond

Crocodylus acutus does not have a reputation as a maneater, but it is still a powerful predator, well equipped to dispatch a soft, pink meal like myself. In my white inflatable kayak, I suppose I looked like a big marshmallow with a pink, chewy center. There are places in the world where I wouldn’t dare paddle around in such a flimsy craft with my body so close to the water.  Saltwater crocs (Crocodylus porosous) and Nile Crocs (Crocodylus niloticus) are both very large species that would attack a mammal my size without hesitation. It’s been suggested that acutus just doesn’t normally have large mammals in it’s diet, so we don’t appear to them as a prey item. Nile crocs, on the other hand, have been filmed grabbing wildebeest and zebra by the nose, and tossing them over their back into the water. A well known kayaker and trip leader was taken by a Nile croc, right out of his kayak in the Zambesi River.  Saltwater crocs have been notorious as maneaters as well, taking people in southeast Asia and Australia with some regularity.

("Three Young Salties" 11 x 14 scratchboard drawing) Crocodylus porosus will grow into 6 meter monsters that take humans without hesitation. 

Of course, alligators get to be huge predators as well, and they do have a record of attacking folks occasionally in Florida. These are usually situations where humans have tempted gators beyond their natural aversion to eating people. Falling into the water near an alligator’s mouth is one way to stimulate a feeding response, another is to splash around among the gators in an area where people feed them.  As more wild lands turn into suburbia, gator-human conflicts become more common.

“Nine Mile Mangrove” 9×12, acrylic on panel (plein aire)