Okay, maybe no need for such a dramatic title but it was certainly not for the faint-hearted and something I will remember for the rest of my life. During a liveaboard in Cuba, I was able to float nose to nose with El Nino the American crocodile, something I never thought I’d do.
As an experienced diver I am familiar with being in the presence of sharks, from reef sharks to larger more intimidating sharks. Diving with large sharks in numbers with the odd close encounter, you begin to see how they behave and their reaction to you as a diver, being this foreign species that was not born to be an ocean inhabitant. After a few sharky dives you develop a trust and understanding, learning how to conduct yourself around sharks becomes second nature, they become a familiar and welcome sight.
Crocodiles, on the other hand, are far from a familiar sighting and not even thought about when it comes to diving. When I saw this was a possibility at a location I was looking at booking, it really did seal the deal, then the countdown began.
Where in the world is this possible you may ask, while I’m sure similar encounters can be found elsewhere, mine took place in Cuba, in ‘La Jardines De La Reina’. The Gardens of the Queen, as it’s otherwise known, is a huge reef system on the south side of Cuba, with pristine reefs, plenty of sharks and beautiful surroundings. It really has to be the best of the Caribbean, being well preserved by limiting visiting diver numbers to the hundreds per year.
The days leading up to the liveaboard I was very excited, not only to see such a beautiful location underwater but about my future encounter and how it was going to play out. On board our boat the prospect of being in the water with a croc didn’t seem to be much of a talking point, however, for me it was going to be the highlight of the week.
After a few days diving we were moored in mangrove territory and I knew the introduction with Nino was drawing closer. We were told we would alternate so the other group would head out in the morning first thing and we would go after our morning dive. During the dive I was mostly wondering what was happening in the mangroves and whether the other group seeing him first would mean he would disappear after having his fill of human interaction for the day. Other thoughts would be wondering if crocodiles were like sharks in the sense you have a better chance of meeting them early morning.
As we returned to the main boat the others had just got back and were still standing around the dive deck, I was looking for excited, smiling faces of joy and achievement but saw none. It turns out El Nino had evaded them and was not to be seen after searching for the best part of an hour. Now I was nervous our chance to have this once in a lifetime experience was slipping away. I think the decision was made to wait a while before heading straight back out, and I’m glad we did…….
El Nino – The Encounter
After hoping and praying Nino would now be less busy, or more sociable and willing to be found by us, we set off on our hunt through the mangroves. After a few minutes of nothing but silence and the beauty of the mangroves, I was starting to feel hopeless again. We went round in a few circles and the crew started their chanting, “Nee nee ooo, nee nee ooo”, a tune I’m sure they had rehearsed together. Another 10 or 15 minutes went by with us singing Nino’s symphony, no sign of movement, no ripples, nothing…
We finally conceded unwillingly and started to head back to base, when just then, like some miracle, out of the middle of the mangroves comes the star of the show, it was El Nino! There he was, propelling his fine Jurassic self towards our boat, in that swaying motion these amphibians do so well. He was an American crocodile and a good size, between the 2.5 to 3 metre mark, not nearly as big as some crocs but for everyone on the boat, easily big enough! The time was now….
Everyone on the boat cheers and there’s a look of relief in captain’s eyes, we were about to do the unthinkable. It was a similar feeling to what I’d had before any potential life threatening activity like a bungee or parachute jump. It suddenly sinks in that we CHOSE to do this and were in the here and now, there was a crocodile within a metre from the boat and we were about to get into it’s domain for fun, thrills, photo ops, overcome some fear, all manner of possible reasons.
We get our snorkel gear on and camera gear ready, we are advised to slip into the water quietly on the other side of the boat. We get to witness Nino being lowered in some chicken and get first row seats watching as his huge powerful jaw snaps up the chicken and swallows it in an instant. While I don’t agree with feeding wild animals in this way, I was naive to think this kind of activity can happen any other way. As the first guest slips in, camera in hand, it becomes apparent none of the crew would be accompanying us to supervise what was about to happen. This was a little unsettling at first but in some ways reassuring, assuming it meant there was really zero chance if anything going wrong. Fortunately we were a small group, I was second in and soon had my solo interaction with Nino. It was a strange mix of feeling safe, with the crew being so nonchalant, while remembering that this is still a wild animal that by no means has to mimic it’s previous encounters by being relaxed, trading it’s being there for portions of chicken. As I dare to get closer, which in the end was very close, I think at one time I had my camera dome no more than 4 inches from his jaws. When you see the teeth from a snorkelling pov you really appreciate how big and intimidating they are, beginning to wonder what would happen if Nino decided he wanted to try something other than chicken. As I held onto the side of the boat, I could see others had now entered the water, no doubt this made me feel safer, after all this was unknown territory, I didn’t know what to do or not to do around these creatures. It was surreal being so close to him, especially with portions of chicken being lowered between us, thankfully his jaw-eye co-ordination was spot on.
It became a struggle holding onto the boat, a surprising amount of current ripped through the mangroves, trying it’s best to loosen my grip and wash me straight into Nino’s awaiting jaws. As he stayed in the same spot for the most part (where the chicken was being delivered), I felt the need to rotate for someone else so come into my position, but I could have stayed there for hours taking it all in. As I moved round to his side I could now see a new angle, his long muscly body and tail, a real life dinosaur. A few more minutes passed before it was time to get back on board, by the end we got to see him swim around a little, getting a little jittery whenever he came in close. We climbed back up onto the boat fully intact and waved Nino goodbye as we headed back to our larger vessel.
The experience with Nino was exceptional, I would have loved to go back another time and see him, he was a gentle giant. Although the rest of the diving was outstanding, this half an hour was a huge highlight of the trip and something truly unforgettable. Amongst all the excitement and moments of fear I was able to come away with some great shots too. Happy days!
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