Shallow waters

Words and photography by Leighton Lum

I was one of those kids that dreamed of seeing real dinosaurs.

It was this obsession that led my career towards the natural world. I am now a professional wildlife photographer and my passion for wildlife has taken me to all corners of the globe, shooting above and below the water. I’ve photographed the big cats in the Serengeti and hung out with penguins in Antarctica. But it wasn’t until 2018 that I heard of a place where I could almost fulfil that childhood dream.

My target species was the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) and I was determined to dive with them. At first, I thought it would be insane, but after seeing photos from other photographers I knew I had to do it. I had to know how it would feel to share the same habitat with these amazing reptiles, with no fences and no barriers.

The crocodile season in Cancun, Mexico, runs from June to August. My trip also coincided with the whale shark migration that takes place off Isla Mujeros. For two days I moved among these ocean giants, swimming with as many as 100 in the area at a time. They were the sizes of buses and a little intimidating, but they glide so gracefully through the water, it was hard to not be in awe.

American Crocodiles Banco Cinchorro Mexico wildlife photographer
American Crocodiles Banco Cinchorro Mexico drone
American Crocodiles Banco Cinchorro Mexico teeth

I headed south, travelling for four hours along narrow and bumpy roads to the sleepy town of Xcalak. From here, I could access the UNESCO Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve, one of the largest coral atolls in the Northern Hemisphere. The area in which the crocodiles dwell boasts a lot of shallow mangrove swamp – the perfect habitat. With a large amount of fish in the area the crocodiles have plenty to eat – they bathe languidly in the shallows, waiting for scraps from fishermen. Our group stayed in a little shack over the water around two hours away from the atoll of Banco Chinchorro.

Before we had even really settled in, we had already attracted a curious visitor. As I stepped off the boat, a 10ft American crocodile looked up from the shallows. Excited and nervous I geared up and was set to try get in the water with the beast. As our guide started cutting up some bait for him, a few more curious crocodiles showed up. Our guide recognised each individual, knowing them all by name and personality traits. Some were calm and docile while the younger ones were more skittish and snappier. By far the biggest was a crocodile called Godzilla, who was 14 feet long and incredibly unpredictable – even our guide was hesitant to let people in the water with him, as he snapped at everything that moved. As I slept in my hammock each night, I dreamt of crocodiles and listened to the waves tumbling over one another beneath the hut.

Thankfully, this specific population of American crocodiles have a stable population. They give birth on the atoll, don’t migrate and are completely isolated from the mainland of Mexico. They have no natural predators other than occasionally other crocodiles. Tourism impact in this area is relatively low, as getting here is pretty challenging. The tourism that does exist here can help support the local community and bring more awareness to both the area and this species. With increased awareness of a place like this, then people can take the necessary steps to better protect the area and the species. Swimming with these crocodiles is a heavily regulated activity and every possible step goes into planning this trip to ensure human and animal safety.

American Crocodiles Banco Cinchorro Mexico whale shark
American Crocodiles Banco Cinchorro Mexico gambit

The locals who live on the atoll are seasonal fisherman who understand the atoll and have a great relationship with the crocodiles. They know each individual and even give them names. When the fishermen clean their catches, they often throw unwanted remnants to the crocodiles, which is why they make their daily rounds to all of the fishing huts. Once they hear the sound of fish being chopped up, the crocodiles start to move out of the mangroves and wait by the huts. It seems like they know they will get fed so they have very little reason to attack people in the water.

There was a particularly famous crocodile who stole the show during our time in the water – Gambit. This 12-foot behemoth is one of the oldest residents of Banco Chinchorro, and one of the most photographed. When he turns up, eyes glinting like yellow marble orbs, all of the smaller crocs disappear. He seems to fear absolutely nothing and would let us move in close to take his picture. Sometimes he opened as if to pose, grinning mischievously. He never moved aggressively towards me or the other divers, but it definitely felt like he wanted to be the centre of attention. When I dived down beneath the surface to stare into his great prehistoric eyes, the kid in me who had been so desperate to meet a dinosaur, felt somewhat vindicated.

I felt completely at home in the water with the crocodiles, who seemed just as curious of us as we were of them. I was surprised how little they reacted to us being in the water with them. We spent three amazing days diving with eight different crocodiles before packing up the hut and sailing back to the mainland. The pristine water and the relationship these local fishermen have with the crocodiles here is something special. As a photographer it’s great to see that we can push some boundaries and erase stereotypes, that people can co-exist with some extremely dangerous animals. By learning how animals behave and understanding their body language, we can safely approach and interact with these incredible creatures.

American Crocodiles Banco Cinchorro Mexico fishing huts
American Crocodiles Banco Cinchorro Mexico split shot
American Crocodiles Banco Cinchorro Mexico biosphere reserve

Most animals by nature are not aggressive towards people. Generally, they just don’t see us as a viable food source. Crocodiles can be extremely dangerous, but if approached and observed in the right way many of these animals are approachable. Being able to read and understand an animal’s behaviour is key in forging trusting relationships with wildlife. Many animals will send out warning signals that tell you when they are not comfortable with your presence. Elephants with vocalise and bluff charge, sharks with change their body posture, whales and dolphins will blow bubbles. These are all examples that let you know that you are too close, if you keep coming closer they will attack you. Unfortunately, many bad encounters with animals occur when someone has misread the signs. They ignored the warning calls, or made the animal feel threatened.

Having the right conditions were also key in making an interaction like this possible. What makes Banco Chinchorro unique is the amazing water clarity. Being able to keep eye contact with the crocodile is fundamental. Having clear water makes the chances of an ambush attack less likely. Crocodiles are ambush predators and will use muddy water to slowly sneak up on their prey. By having the animals in shallow clear water helps establish the presence of both parties, they know where we are, and we know where they are. There are no surprises and the animal doesn’t get startled.

I think capturing positive interactions like that can be helpful for destigmatising certain species and can contribute to marine conservation. The more people can see footage or imagery of people interacting safely with these animals, the more people will be interested in their protection. The more people who can gain a more positive outlook on an animal with a very negative perception, which has been bolstered by mainstream media, the better.

Banco Chinchorro is very special. These crocodiles are special. They have a deep-rooted relationship with the local people and their behaviour is different from crocodiles in other parts of the world. They are proof though that people can coexist and share the water with a truly extraordinary creature.