Waking up in the middle of the night to use the loo, I wandered outside drawn by the magical moonlight. Standing at the edge of the stilted cottage in which I was staying, I could see the moon’s rays glinting off the gentle waves. And among the wavering shadows in the water was a crocodile resting in the shallows.
There are times and places when even the most mundane of acts become amazing. During my visit to Banco Chinchorro atoll reef, located 35 km off Mexico’s coast in the Caribbean Sea, a loo visit resulted in an unexpected and memorable photo.
Part of the Mesoamerican Reef – the largest reef in the western hemisphere stretching nearly 1125 km – Banco Chinchorro is a hotspot for marine diversity and a prime tourist destination. Designated a biosphere reserve in 1996, the reef has three major islands: Cayo Norte, Cayo Centro, or Caya Lobos, which also has an American crocodile reserve. The two main access points to it are the towns of Xcalak and Majahual on the Mexican mainland.
The waters teem with tropical marine life, with lots of coral and colourful species like groupers, sergeant majors, angelfish and more. There are also lobsters and stingrays, reef and nurse sharks, and turtles that attract divers and snorkellers alike. The area’s year-long pleasant temperature means that there are tourists here around the calendar.
But what brought me here was the American crocodiles that make their home in the shallow lagoons and mangrove forests surrounding the atoll. Numbering about 400-500 individuals, this population is distinctive for its genetic purity. Normally quite shy, the crocodiles are hard to photograph in their natural habitat. However, they often wander to the shallow waters a short distance offshore where fishermen build their stilt huts (since private construction on the island is not allowed) in search of easy food like fish offal. It was one such hut amongst a small cluster that I stayed in for five nights, to capture these images. Out in the open, away from their comfort zone, the crocodiles are more tentative, less aggressive, making it possible to photograph them. Even so, I had to be very careful.