Chomp in the Swamp

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

The company's natural resources manager, Winifred Perkins, says that FP&L remains committed to the crocodile. "We needed high-powered Ph.D.-types to establish the programs," she says, "but once they are up, what you need to run them is field personnel, people willing to go out there when it rains, when it's 100 degrees, when the crocs are hatching."

Late June through mid-August is hatchling season, when mother crocs -- stirred by instinct and feeling the subterranean vibrations emitted as their young start to grow restless in their eggshells -- begin to uncover their nests and help their babies escape toward the light. Tonight Wasilewski is making another of his frequent runs to nesting areas. There, often just minutes or hours after baby crocs burst out of their eggs, Wasilewski will scoop up the ten-inch-long creatures and cart them back to the lab, where he'll measure and weigh them, as well as give each a permanent identification number by injecting into their tails a computer chip that can be read by a scanner. He'll also trim off a couple of scutes -- the raised, leathery scales on the crocodile's tail -- according to a pattern that identifies the individual animal and indicates where it was caught.

The little ones are harmless, and even someone with a chronic case of herpetophobia can keep fears in check around them. But out in the inky night lurk the mothers and fathers of the hatchlings, and here is where a reporter given to hyperbole visualizes only death. Big-jawed crocodiles have forever been the stuff of human nightmares. Serpentine, stealthy, and cunning, crocs can attack on land or in the water, and with stunning speed. They hold their hapless prey underwater until death comes by drowning, and then they rend their catch into chewable chunks. Historically, crocs have been symbols of evil, depicted in medieval bestiaries as "hellmouths." Out there in FP&L's cooling canals are some behemoths, with saber-size teeth and jaws strong enough to pulverize a bowling ball.

Of course, even at the dock it is evident that man-munching crocodiles are not the only threat lurking in the void beyond. That persistent drone is a warning to all but the terminally foolish that if the crocodiles don't eat us, the mosquitoes will. With heavy rains in May and June, this has been a banner year for mosquitoes. The sound alone makes it apparent that these marauders have banded into organized squadrons and are prepared to operate with panzer-unit efficiency. On approach to the human ear, the mosquitoes almost drown out the roar of the airboat's engine, and in concert these piranhas seem capable of draining the blood from a 180-pound man in minutes. The passengers have sprayed up with repellents, but alas, there is no chemical defense that can effectively stop them.

Away from the dock, and away from the lights of FP&L's massive plant, the sky is clear and immense, a pointillist's dreamscape of a million glittering stars, an infinite canvas undetectable by those in street-lit cities. Now, with the wind in our faces, the bugs splattering against our goggles, and the warm spray of canal water misting our clothes, we are skimming over the surface, flying through a leaping salute of mullet and pinfish.

Such wild and unusual beauty makes anxiety about the unknown seem misplaced. Besides, luckily for us, riding point on this mission is Stu Lloyd, a small, wiry 36-year-old FP&L mechanic who can reputedly fix a busted-down airboat in the dark using nothing but blue-green algae and fishbones. The reporter and photographer along for the ride are relieved to hear this, because as we push off from the dock it is perfectly evident that the only end worse than death by crocodile would be death by mosquito, which would happen if either the boat or the slight, bug-scattering breeze were to die somewhere offshore.

"Don't let them bother you," advises Wasilewski of the mosquitoes. "You won't enjoy the trip if you worry about them." And things could be worse, he points out, recalling many hours he has spent hunched over in a blind, waiting to photograph crocodiles, as insects whine so loudly in his ears that he gets dizzy. "They set up a vibration," he explains, "and it's like the inner ear talks back."

Like their alligator cousins', crocodiles' lineage goes clear back to the dinosaur. The ancestors of crocs have likely been at home in South Florida, as well as in the Greater Antilles, Mexico, and parts of Central and South America, for most of the past 200 million years. Good documentation of their existence here doesn't much predate the 1860s, however. Unlike alligators, which are ubiquitous and unthreatened in freshwater habitats throughout Florida and other southern states, crocodiles never ranged far inland because the territory they favor has always been more limited -- basically, a narrow collar around the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. Preferring brackish water, crocodiles competed with people for the same coastal range where freshwater and saltwater mix. Not surprisingly, people prevailed.

As Wasilewski pilots the airboat up and down the grid of canals he has come to know so well in the past eight years, Lloyd casts a powerful searchlight along the berms. When the light hits a croc's eye, it gives back a reddish-orange glow; when Lloyd sees that eyeshine he wiggles the light as a signal to Wasilewski, who guns the boat for the shore.

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