At the beginning of March I headed to the USA to cover Round 6 of the 2018/19 FIA World Endurance Championship at Sebring in Florida. The WEC hadn’t raced in Florida since 2012, having moved the US round of the championship to Austin in Texas in 2013 until 2017, so I took the opportunity to take a few extra days to see a bit more of the ‘Sunshine State’. One of the things I decided to do was a trip out to photograph the wildlife in the Everglades with the Fujifilm X Series . There was only one mode of transport that would do and that was an airboat.
I was joined by fellow X-Photographer John Rourke and two of his Adrenal Media photographers and we booked a private boat for 2 hours with a company called ‘Airboat in Everglades’. Our skipper Willie took us on a wild ride through the waterways and tree islands of the Everglades.
The main reason we were here was to photograph the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) and we didn’t have to wait long before we spotted the first adult lurking in the lily pads. Alligators are protected inside the Everglades National Park and males can reach up to 15 feet (4.5m), with females reaching 10 feet (3m).
Alligators are considered an important part of the Everglades ecosystem. The nesting activity of female alligators is important for the creation of peat. Also water remains in alligator holes throughout the year except during severe drought conditions.
As the dry season approaches and water dries up from other areas within the Everglades, the retained water causes alligator holes to become a refuge for a variety of wildlife.
Human conflicts with alligators are rare and generally not serious, but incidents do occur. Alligator attacks on humans are attributed to illegal feeding, which makes the alligators bolder and less wary of humans. It is illegal to feed alligators for this reason.
As we travelled through the waterways we saw several large adults, including a female that made a beeline straight for the airboat, coming alongside so we could get a closer look at her. This was a wild animal and we were very careful not to put limbs or cameras over the side of the low slung craft.
We then headed to a small group of trees where we found a small nursery of 12 month old alligators, guarded by a large female that kept her eye on our boat the whole time. A juvenile alligator will grow about one foot (30cm) each year for the first four years of their lives. The juveniles we spotted were quite fearless, approaching the airboat to a close distance.
The Everglades is also home to the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) – they are larger than alligators, reaching up to 20 feet (6 metres) in length. Unfortunately we didn’t spot one on this trip.
In addition to the alligators, the Florida Everglades is home to a variety of birds and we saw White Ibis (Eudocimus albus), Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), Great Egret (Casmerodius albus), Common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus), Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) and Osprey (Pandion haliaetus).
With the clear shallow water it was easy to spot the variety of fish under the surface, including tilapia, gars and cichlids.
I decided not go loaded down with camera gear and took along the X-T3 with the XF200mm f/2 fitted with the 1.4x converter. This lens stayed on the X-T3 for the entire trip on the airboat. I also took an X-H1 which I used to shoot some video and stills with the 10-24mm f/4 and 50-140mm f/2.8 zooms.
With the afternoon Florida sun darting in and out of the high cloud cover it was a challenge to get the exposure correct when the wildlife was staying in the shade. The beauty of the EVF on the Fujifilm X Series is I can see the exposure in the viewfinder and adjust it quickly if necessary. I always shoot in manual mode with the ISO adjusted on the front dial, the shutter speed on the rear dial and the aperture adjusted on the lens.
The AF was set to continuous with the custom function set to Set 4, suddenly appearing subject. The X Series autofocus is perfectly suited to wildlife photography, especially when coupled with the superb 200mm f/2 and matched 1.4x converter.
After two and a half hours we headed back to the dock after a fantastic adventure on the Florida Everglades. We felt very privileged that we saw as much as we did. As with all wildlife shoots you cannot guarantee seeing anything. However local knowledge is everything and our guide Willie knew exactly where to look so we came back with a card full of images from our afternoon in the Everglades.
CLICK HERE for more information on the tours run by Airboat in Everglades.
CLICK HERE for more information on the Florida Everglades (National Park Service website).