Filming the Fierce Alligators of the Everglades

In partnership with National Parks, National Geographic Channel unleashes the hidden beauty and brutality of America’s national parks—100 years in the making. This third installment of the spectacular year-long television event focuses on the Florida Everglades, a national park that cradles an astonishing amount of endangered wildlife and some of the most diverse creatures known to the Americas.

Filmmaker for this episode, Zoltan Torok’s mission was to follow the fierce alligator mothers of the park to film a hatchling story. In the Everglades, the alligator is widespread and common. Breeding season typically starts in late April. Alligator courtship is very complex and can last for hours, involving a variety of vocalizations, displays in the water, posturing, snout and back rubbing, bubble blowing and pheromone signals. After all of the song and dance, the pairs will mate. By June, the females begin building mound nests out of debris in the marsh and lay anywhere between 25 to 60 eggs. “Then, they fiercely protect them staying by the nest for more than two months…Our job was to catch them, measure them, count their eggs and check if they were fertilized. It’s a pretty big adrenaline bomb looking for an angry alligator mother before she finds us in the knee deep water heavily overgrown by dense vegetation,” recalls Zoltan.

ZOLTAN-GATORHe and his small crew along with the help and guidance of Mark Parry, a wildlife biologist for the parks, became very close with one alligator in particular, which they affectionately named Princess. “I was extremely happy as I was looking for a nest for long time where I could film the hatching of the babies,” says Zoltan, but there was a problem. Though they didn’t know exactly when Princess built her nest, they did know that the hatching window was narrowing. So knowing that capturing the hatchlings’ first moments in this world was only a matter of timing, Zoltan took it upon himself to check the nest on a regular basis, walking into the murky shallows of the Everglades from late August through September just before sunrise. “Alligator babies usually hatch at dawn so if there was no activity by noon we left. After a few days she [Princess] got used to us and she didn’t care about us anymore. We could approach the nest very close. It’s always touching to earn the trust of a truly wild predator,” adds Zoltan. “As September was approaching I felt that something must be wrong, but I just couldn’t give it up. I always extended the deadline of the operation. Mark Parry offered that he could check the eggs for us, but call me romantic: I just didn’t want to ruin our nice relationship with “Princess.”

One morning, on another early morning trek into the marsh, Zoltan’s fate with Princess was solidified. He and princess met once again. This time, their encounter was far, far away from the nest and no babies were in sight. “she finally abandoned her nest. We walked to the tree island, a dry spot in the Everglades, where her nest was located and checked the nest. The eggs were there, 29 of them, but none of them were developed — they never got fertilized.”

Even despite seemingly unfruitful efforts, Zoltan remains optimistic and calls his sojourn in the Everglades “an emotional rollercoaster.” His nearly two years filming with Princess will not soon be forgotten. And besides, he says, “the summer sunrises in the Everglades were unforgettable, we captured more than enough of them for the film.

Don’t miss America’s National Parks’s fourth installment, Gates of Arctic National Park, this Sunday, January 31 at 8/7c.