Close Encounters With the Swamps' Fiercest Predator

Photographer and swamp diver Jose Fernandez, nearly nose to nose with an alligator in the Florida Everglades.
Photographer and swamp diver Jose Fernandez, nearly nose to nose with an alligator in the Florida Everglades. (Peter Andrew Bosch -- Miami Herald)
By Curtis Morgan
Miami Herald
Sunday, August 26, 2007

The second that Jose Fernandez slips into the cypress-lined Everglades pond, a resident alligator slices across the green, glassy water to confront him.

Pushing seven feet and clearly pugnacious, even without taking into account the chewed-off left rear leg, it stops a snout-length from the camera that Fernandez holds like a shield. After a stare-down, the gator circles, slow and sharklike, hissing bad intentions.

At this point, a typical person might get nervous, maybe rethink why he waded into this gator-infested hole. Fernandez stays put, snapping pictures underwater, calmly following as the animal moves and dives.

Fernandez is not typical.

He has joined a very small, very savvy, very crazy band of swamp divers -- people who purposefully jump into dark and dangerous ponds, pools, canals and creeks in the Everglades and its surrounding wild waters. They do it for science, to make movies, to observe or capture uncommon scenes in an element of the Everglades few humans ever see.

And, yes, for scary fun. Entering the hidden haunts of the lizard king of the Everglades, a creature capable of snapping human bones like tortilla chips, is an electric jolt.

"It's very, very exciting," said Fernandez, a South Miami man whose murky immersions have rekindled passion for a photography profession he abandoned years ago. "There are times when you're in there and the alligators bump into you. Sometimes, they take off in a very small area, and it's like a chain reaction, they all start flying by and hitting you."

Swamp diving is eerie, fascinating, frightening -- and an experience that almost no one should ever, ever try. Don't even think about it.

The experts stress it's foolhardy, daft, dumb -- and every other word meaning stupid -- unless you've spent years handling or observing gators. Even with vast experience, it's not risk-free, said Manny Puig, who has displayed his Tarzanesque physique and skill at free-diving and wrangling sharks, gators and other large critters as "Sharkman" for the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and other cable television networks.

Puig, who became friends with Fernandez through spearfishing outings, spent much of his life in South Florida studying and interacting with wildlife underwater. Over the years, he has tutored a few friends in the ways of the Glades' most formidable animal.

"I'm not trying to get people to practice it. I tell people this is extremely dangerous," Puig said. "This animal is the king of the swamp. He's a dominant predator out there. He fights and kills for his meals. He fights with his own kind."

And, just like humans, alligators are all different, Puig says. "Some alligators are psychopaths; some are not."

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