An eye-to-eye encounter with a gentle giant.
Back in March 2018 I was invited to work on a TV show filming in Panama. Hearing that I would be seeing out the rest of the horrid British winter on a sun-soaked desert island paradise, I couldn't wait to set sail and see what wildlife the coastal jungles held in store.
I was staying on the Bocas Del Toro archipelago, nicknamed the "Galapagos of the Caribbean" for good reason. With some of the most extensive rainforest in Central America, many of its birds and mammals are unique to its tiny islets and mangrove-fringed islands, including in the vicinity of our production office on Isla Bastimentos.
Behind the sun-kissed tropical beaches however was a less idyllic story. Around the corner lay a shadowy, murky swampland teaming with snakes, lizards and crabs.
The stench of a nearby refuse dump and carrion attracted black vultures and hawks. Paradise for animals, not so much for people.
The vultures gathered in the palm trees, watching the waters warily for the prehistoric creature that inhabited them - a spectacled caiman.
Caiman, a kind of small crocodilian, do not pose any serious threat to people as I had to constantly reassure my doubtful colleagues. Every morning before filming began for the day, I would grab breakfast and then head to this small transect of swamp and wait for the caiman to appear. She often lay in the muddy shallows inconspicuous and looking like a log until a flick of her tail gave her away.
It was easy to miss her, as more often than not just a solitary pebble-like eye peeping above the surface showed.
With so much human and animal activity around her swamp, she was naturally curious and swam over to check me out. I wouldn't dream of being this close if I thought that she might hurt me, and similarly if I thought my presence might agitate her. Respect works both ways. She glided within a few feet, keeping an eye on me, and floated among the ripples, basking in the sun's rays.
We soon realised that there was another reason for her curiosity, which became apparent after our first week on the island. There was a brief spell during which we didn't see much of her about the swamp, and then one day one of the film crew burst into the production office, breathlessly telling me that the caiman had just given birth.
With my camera, which I had now obsessively started to bring to work every day in case of moments like these, I ran the short distance to the swamp and scanned the edges of the island where she usually bathed in the early afternoons. She was paddling in the emerald shallows, her nose pointing to the bank, and just above her long nose were two freshly-hatched baby caiman with goggly eyes, mottled lemony chins and stripy tails.
In a matter of seconds rather than minutes, I looked on as one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight caiman scuttled across the bank and plunged their first entry into the water. I fired off a few photos but the conditions were not so favourable; and the moment was so brief that in the end I lowered my camera and did what any nature-loving photographer would do in this special moment: just sat and watched.
At sunset, after a day of filming had ended, I went back to see if I could find the babies. But there was no sign of them nor for the rest of our stay. Their mother too became a less frequent sight, so I assume they went off to find a shallower and more secluded pool for their nursery. I did sometimes see the father caiman, a larger and more formidable creature who, I must admit I'm relieved, swam not as frequently.
One late evening however towards the end of filming, when I thought the female had left that bit of swamp for good, I found her sitting still in the inky darkness, her head reflected in the glass-like surface like an old wooden mask or like the seedpod of some exotic fruit. It was lovely to photograph her like this, and to see her as the watchful but docile mother caiman that meant no harm to any person and that was just trying to raise her young in the sanctuary of that little patch of paradise, her Caribbean swamp.
Thanks for reading! For more photos from my Panama trip, visit the Panama Gallery or read my blogpost on the Jungle Birds of Panama.