Chomp in the Swamp

Tracking South Florida's endangered crocodiles is a business best left to experts and maniacs

As Joe Wasilewski pulls on his wading boots, sprays some Deep Woods Off on his bare arms and neck, and begins to haul his supplies -- spotlights, cloth sacks, a notebook, and scales and a ruler for taking measurements -- down to the dock, he tries to explain the appeal of venturing out in a mysterious, watery preserve that is acrawl with scores of animals known as nature's prototypical killing machines.

"I'm careful," says Wasilewski. "I know my limits with these animals. I've been bitten. If it's too big for me to grab, then I leave it alone."

This is reassuring news to a reporter and photographer who are tagging along with Wasilewski tonight on a foray into prime nesting grounds of the American crocodile, the rarest reptile in North America. A couple of days earlier Wasilewski had introduced his guests to tankfuls of ten-inch-long hatchlings kept in an air-conditioned laboratory; although toothy and spirited, these newborns came across as likably innocent. But out there beyond the dock are adult crocs, some of them thirteen feet long and weighing up to 800 pounds, with unknowable dispositions.

When the reporter asks Wasilewski if he carries a weapon -- a shotgun, a bazooka, something -- the answer is no. "So," the reporter says, "you're not going to try to bring into the boat anything bigger than a baby, right?"

"Well, I want to grab them all, because that's the way we gather information," says Wasilewski, who speaks in a raspy voice and is dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and black Converse high-tops. "It's like being a detective, trying to understand why these prehistoric creatures are still alive."

A sliver of a waxing moon hangs like a coy little wink in the western sky as Wasilewski climbs into the high seat of the airboat and cranks up the V-8 Cadillac engine. "Whoooo-eee!" he yelps, flushed with excitement at the prospect of the chase. "I never get tired of this."

Even with the moon, the stars, and the eerie sodium-lamp glow radiating from Florida Power & Light's Turkey Point nuclear power plant, it is dark out here in far southeast Dade County. It's after nine, but the temperature is still hovering in the low 80s, and the heavy, humid air is thick with flying insects. Clearly this is hostile territory, a subtropical, primordial Hades, the same steamy hell that persuaded the earliest colonial visitors to South Florida to get back on their boats, head out to sea, and write off this netherland as inhospitable and uninhabitable. The heat, the whirring blackness, the oppressive sultriness -- all are enough to make sensible folk run for sanctuary.

But field biologists such as Wasilewski are not bothered by insects, heat, darkness, and discomfort. Since 1989 he has worked for FP&L as a consulting biologist charged with monitoring the population of endangered American crocodiles living within the 22,000-acre power plant site. Wasilewski has spent countless hours here in the shadow of the twin towers of Turkey Point's containment buildings, both inside a modest on-site laboratory and outside in the muck and mire of the wetlands. He likes it here. "I'm doing something useful, trying to save these animals," he says.

Thirty years ago Crocodylus acutus was thought to be flirting with extinction. While alligators were thriving in Everglades National Park and in freshwater marshlands all over the state, the population of crocs shrank back to a lonely few in the brackish saltwater flats in the remotest sections of southern Dade and northern Monroe counties. Estimates of the total U.S. population fell to fewer than 200 animals.

But in the late 1960s, when FP&L began to build its power plant on Turkey Point, a hook of land due east of Homestead, no one knew for sure whether crocodiles lived in the neighborhood. Environmentalists objected to the power plant on other grounds: that it would destroy mangroves, cause pollution, or kill off sea grasses and other native vegetation with discharges of superheated water.

It wasn't until 1976, almost four years after the first nuclear reactor was fired up, that crocodiles were discovered nesting on Turkey Point. Not only did 168 miles of radiator-style cooling canals shelter the animals from human intruders and from the winds and chop of Biscayne Bay, but the earthen berms created by the dredging of the canals turned out to be ideal sites for the cavities that crocs dig to protect their developing young. A female crocodile lays from twenty to forty eggs in a single night, covers them with dirt, and then remains nearby to defend the nest for the 90-day incubation period.

Ross Wilcox, then FP&L's ecologist, was charged with spinning the crocodiles into public relations gold. He designed a management plan and got an annual budget of $50,000 to hire consultants and conduct research. Then the power company spread the news: Turkey Point was crocodile paradise.

Over the last twenty years, in an age of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Homer Simpson, FP&L has gotten a lot of goodwill mileage by riding the crocodile and other threatened species (such as manatees and loggerhead turtles) that live on the company's Florida properties. FP&L has won several awards for its conservation practices, but in recent years the company has cut back on its crocodile budget. Wilcox was downsized out of a job eighteen months ago. "The company has gone from being proactive to reactive, I think," says Wilcox, a Ph.D. biologist now at Florida Atlantic University's Center for Environmental Studies.

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