I frequently travel to Florida to visit family and friends, and while there, I try to also visit as many of Florida’s national, state and local parks, refuges and preserves as possible. During recent visits, I have taken my 89 year old father-in-law out for the day to do something unusual and entertaining. For example, on a previous visit I rented a boat, and we went on the Indian River to photograph Brown Pelicans at a rookery covered in pelicans and other birds. (Pelican Island images at: http://stabone.com/p109901015#h3af83c9c) Last week, I picked up my father-in-law in the morning and planned to take him to Gatorland, near Kissimmee.
Although my father-in-law has lived in Central Florida since 1966, he had never been to Gatorland, which was Central Florida’s primary tourist attraction for many years before Disney World changed everything. I wanted to go in the morning, just in case there was something worth photographing, while the sun was low in the sky and the light was good for photography. However, my father-in-law wanted to go to a hotel near Disney World that he used to frequent several years ago and have a late breakfast. Unfortunately, we could not find the hotel, and instead, we had lunch at a different location.
After lunch, since we were in the vicinity of Gatorland, we drove there, arriving mid-afternoon. I was a bit disappointed because the sun was overhead, bright and harsh–not good for photography. Regardless, I brought my Nikon D800 and 80-400mm lens with me just in case we saw something worth photographing. I did not know what to expect, since I had not been to Gatorland in over 30 years. Shortly after arriving, while nearing a small lake full of gators, I heard what sounded like a tuba. A tuba, I thought, why was someone with a tuba at Gatorland, since it is not the kind of instrument someone walks around playing. We could not see where it was coming from, but headed in the direction of the sound. As we rounded a bend on the boardwalk that hugged the lake’s shoreline, we saw what was happening.
There was a video crew recording the gators, and there were two musicians playing their tubas to attract the gators and encourage them to bellow. It was quite a sight, because there were about 30 alligators of varying sizes in the water all staring at the tuba players. I learned after speaking to a member of the crew that they were shooting the video for a BBC show about how animals attract one another for mating. I also spoke with one of the tuba players, William Mickelsen, who performs with The Florida Orchestra. He was accompanied by Brad Postich, one of his students at St. Petersburg College. They were playing variations of a B-flat.
When a bull gator tries to attract a female, it goes through a very unique and unusual process of filling its lungs with air, while raising its body and tail out of the water. It then lowers its body just below the water surface and bellows at a low frequency that makes the water above its spiked back vibrate, causing the water to boil and explode, which is referred to as “water dancing.” The below three images capture two different bull alligators as they were making the water dance above their backs.
Below are 8 images that I shot and complied into an animated GIF. If the images are not sequentially moving, hold your mouse on the image and it should show the sequence that the alligator went through to bellow and make the water dance.
Besides photographing the gators as they went through their mating ritual of bellowing, I recorded a video on my iPhone. Below is the video. The video begins by showing the BBC videographer in the lake and then pans around to an alligator that bellows several times. Be sure to have your sound turned up to hear the sound of the tubas and the alligator bellowing, while making the water dance above its back.
As is often the case with nature photography, timing and being in the right place at the right time is very important, as well as being properly prepared. Obviously, my timing at Gatorland when the BBC crew and tuba players were there was critical to seeing and capturing this very unusual alligator behavior. I owe it all to my father-in-law, who wanted to go for a late breakfast, which delayed our visit to Gatorland, resulting in perfect timing. I had heard of the alligator water dance before and had seen photographs of it, but never thought I would be fortunate enough to see and photograph it. I am very grateful to my very special and fabulous father-in-law.
As my father-in-law and I headed out of Gatorland, the above very large, old alligator caught my eye. It was totally in the shade except for its snout, which was brightly lit by the sun. His massive toothy grin was a fitting end to a very memorable experience.
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