The Dangers of Photography

You might not think that nature photography is a dangerous hobby, and perhaps it isn’t. But I’ve had my share of incidents that makes me think otherwise. There was the water moccasin that I got too close to at Viera Wetlands one morning, and the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake that I came across at Fort DeSoto. There was the time in Colorado when I was nearly out of gas in the Pawnee National Grasslands without realizing the nearest gas station was 50 miles away. Then there was the black bear encounter in Yosemite, so I’d say I’ve had my share of potentially dangerous incidents that I have obviously survived.

The latest one comes while on a quest to photograph Least Terns. Least Terns are the smallest tern and they return to Florida each Spring to breed and raise their young. There are some places along the Atlantic where large numbers of Least Terns scrape out nests in the sand and lay eggs. These large colonies work together to protect their nestlings from predators (and photographers too). The particular colony that Jess and I went to visit is right on the Atlantic ocean in between two state parks. There are some homes in the area, but the beaches are pretty much deserted. It’s a perfect spot for the colony to be relatively undisturbed from tourists. Click the images to view large.

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Least Tern

So Jess and I met at 4:30am and made out way up to the colony. Our plan was to be there before sunrise and take advantage of what we hoped to be a beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic. We arrived at our destination without any trouble, assembled our gear, I put on my beach sandals and we struck out for the colony. To get to the colony, you have to cross a flood plain, cross under a bridge, and take about a quarter-mile hike through the sand to reach the beginning of the colony. Crossing the flood plain is very easy to do. The water is not deep and it is not very wide. Usually you get wet up to your ankles and you are on dry sand pretty quickly. As we walked along, we passed what appeared to be a path that would take us across the watery portion of the flood plain, under the bridge and put us on the other side saving a hundred or so steps from another path that we had used before.

I was in the lead as we walked along and as the ground became wetter, the mud became more slippery. This was an area that would be wet on and off during the day as the tides changed, so the mud never really dries. As I approached the water I began looking for the best way across. I didn’t want to walk through the vegetation as you just don’t know what you might be stepping on. So I decided to walk across a dark pool of water that was only about 3 feet across. 3 or 4 steps and I would be on the other side.

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Least Tern on the Nest

Now, I should mention at this point that there was a voice in my head saying “don’t step into the dark pool. You don’t know how deep it is”. I listened to that voice (sort of) and took a tentative step. When I felt the bottom and realized it was only 2-3 inches deep, I shifted the weight on to my right foot. Immediately I knew I was in trouble.

I should also point out here that I was carrying all my camera gear on my shoulder. I had my 500mm lens, camera body and flash all attached to my tripod with the legs fully extended for balance. In my photo jacket I had a teleconverter, batteries, extra cards and a 17-40mm lens for the sunrise. Not only was this gear a little heavy, but it was also expensive (photography is not a cheap hobby). Plus, all the weight of the tripod, camera and lens was on my right shoulder…the same side of my body that was now in the dark muddy pool of water.

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The Gift

As I shifted more and more weight to my right foot, my foot began sinking into the mud. That’s a natural occurrence in a muddy pool like that, so I figured I would squish down an inch or so and find hard ground. I thought wrong. Really wrong. I immediately sank my right leg down to just below my knee. Of course your first reaction when you lose your footing like this is to try to regain your balance. That would be the same balance that is now teetering over the muddy pool with all your best camera gear tipping towards the water. I quickly realized that I was in a lot of trouble.

Jess was walking behind me and immediately recognized that something was wrong. I’m not sure what her first clue was, but I suspect that it might have been that she was no longer shorter than me. Jess is about 5’5″, but she is loaded down with all of her camera gear as well. Even if she put all her gear down safely first, there was no way she could pull me out of the mud. In fact, she couldn’t even get close enough to save my gear while I thrashed around in the mud like a hippo. So she stopped and asked the obvious question; “are you OK?”

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What Every Bride Wants

So now my mind goes into self-preservation mode. How do I get out? How can I keep my balance until I figure this out? How do I save my gear? Darn it, I’m going to miss the sunrise! So my brain decides that I should try to extract my right foot from the mud. Hey! That sounds like a good idea! So I shift my weight back to my left leg (which is now at a 90 degree angle) and pull my right leg out of the mud. An up comes my leg…without the beach sandal on it that I was wearing. The thick mud sucked the sandal right off my foot.

So now I’m trying to figure out how am I going to find my beach sandal in 2+ feet of mud in a dark muddy pool when the unthinkable happens. With all my weight on my left leg, it now sinks into the mud down to just below my knee. Uh! Oh! But my right leg is free, so I swing it around and find some solid ground to plant it on so I can keep my balance and keep my gear out of the water. With my right foot firmly planted on hard ground, I pull up my left leg and the mud gives it up freely…but keeps my other beach sandal. So now I’ve got both sandals buried in 2+ feet of black, gooey, icky mud.

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The Handoff

But hey! I’m alive and my gear is dry. Jess suggests that we come back at low tide and maybe we can have better luck at finding the shoes. I’m skeptical because I know how far down in the mud they were, and I’m sure the mud covered them over as soon as my legs came out. So off we went to shoot the Least Terns. We had a great time with lots of great shot opportunities.

A couple of hours later, it was time to head back, so we packed up and started walking back to the car. We were laughing about my black muddy feet and the current disposition of my sandals in the mud when we got back to the flood plain. At this point we realized that the missing shoes were the least of our problems. The tide had come in and the flood plain was, well, flooded. This is not good. After sinking into the mud, we were quite concerned about how we would get back across. The little 2-3 feet of ankle deep water we had to cross was now 30 feet of knee deep water.

Feeling brave, I slowly waded across the flood plain and found that the sand was just as hard now as it had been when we crossed it while dry. But I was quite concerned about Jess since she was shorter than me, the water would certainly come up past her knees. And she had an extra camera body and lens dangling below her waist along with all the gear she had on her shoulder. Fortunately we both made it across this flood plain only to learn that around the next corner, the path was again flooded. This area was only ankle deep, but I can assure you, we were both on edge as we began to consider that we might have been trapped by the high tide if we hadn’t left when we did.

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Least Tern Wing Display

The sad part in all of this is that my Columbia beach sandals were already broken in and very comfortable. Now I have to endure the blisters and skin scrapes that come with breaking in a new pair of water shoes. I had only had those sandals for just less than 2 years and I really liked them. Some day, hundreds of years from now, the mud will give up my shoes and they will see the light of day again. I guess some archaeologist will find them entombed in some rock or limestone and wonder what sort of idiot photographer thought it was a good idea to cross a dark, muddy pool.

I did learn some good lessons from this event. Beyond the obvious of not crossing a dark, muddy water hole and being more careful, I learned that I need to check the tide tables when going near the ocean. It is said that you should never turn your back on the ocean. I think I might add that you should always assume that a flood plain will be flooded. The other important lesson is to make sure I have insurance on my gear. Had I lost my gear in the mud, I would not have been able to afford to replace it. I can’t imagine life without photography, so I’ll be making a call to my insurance agent tomorrow to discuss the matter.

3 Comments

  • Jess Yarnell

    May 6, 2012 at 8:50 pm

    I now have a new iPhone app: “Simple Tides” 🙂

    You got some great pictures despite your unexpected mudbath!

    • Michael

      May 6, 2012 at 9:06 pm

      Thanks, Jess! I’ve added Simple Tides to my iPhone as well. Thanks for the tip.

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