The Art of Filming Crocodiles

Crocodile
Perhaps he had crossed the river just to see if I really was a crocodile.

While working on Sri Lanka I often saw crocodiles that quickly disappeared beneath the surface before I was able to capture them on film. That was kind of frustrating. I had, for several years, tried building hides up in the trees, inside hollowed trunks, hides virtually invisible for the human eye, but the crocodiles, which are highly intelligent creatures, always knew I was there.

Over the years I had gotten to know the Swedish wildlife filmmaker, Jan Lindblad. One evening we were talking and I asked him what I should do to film crocodiles. He hadn’t really worked much with crocodiles and didn’t have any concrete advice, but he told me that he had learned a few tricks over the years. “One way,” he said, “is to sound like the animal, smell like the animal, or move like the animal that you are trying to film.”

Well, crocodiles grunt similar to pigs but most of the time they’re pretty quiet, so imitating the way they sound wouldn’t be easy and I wasn’t really interested in smelling like a crocodile. Moving like a crocodile, that might be worth trying.

A couple of days later I decided to try it. In a clearing in the middle of the jungle I found a mudflat dissected by a meandering river. Through the binoculars I spotted five crocodiles. I left the rest of the team in the jeep that we parked about 400 yards away, far enough to avoid scaring the crocs. A few yards from the jeep I laid down and began the slow, arduous task of crawling on my belly like a crocodile, pushing the camera in front of me on a specially-made sled. After every push forward I stopped to make sure the crocodiles by the river hadn’t moved. Three hours later I reached the edge of the river. The crocs were still maybe 50 meters away.

Suddenly one of the crocodiles on the other side of the river slid into the water. “Well, that’s that,” I thought, “it’s not going to work this time either.” I lay perfectly still, my head in my hands, waiting for the rest of the crocodiles to do the same thing, but nothing happened. Strange! Surprisingly, off to my left, a pair of eyes slowly broke the surface just a little bit more than an arms-length away from where I was lying by the river’s edge. Apparently the crocodile from the other side had not been frightened, but had come across to check me out. Was he simply curious, or was he looking to see what could be on the menu this hot afternoon? It didn’t matter to me in the least. I was so ecstatic that my efforts had paid off, I had finally gotten close to these shy giants. Slowly I turned the camera and focused on the crocodile’s eyeballs. I started the camera rolling and we laid there, staring at each other for a couple of minutes. When I had gotten my sequence, the eyes slowly disappeared under the water and the croc swam across to the beach on the other side of the river. When he had gotten comfortable in the afternoon sun, he opened his mouth. That is a sign that the crocodile feels safe and happy.

Perhaps he had crossed the river just to see if I really was a crocodile. Apparently he decided that, despite some rather obvious defects, I was acceptable. For the rest of the afternoon, until the sun was going down, I crawled around amidst the crocodiles like I was part of the group. It’s important to test every possiblity in order to succeed, even in some things seem a little crazy.

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