Chomp in the Swamp

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

People would also pay to see crocodiles and alligators fight. Mazzotti says he has read accounts of interspecies battles in Key West in which "the alligators would usually win once their heavier jaws got a grip on the slender snout of the croc." In the field, Mazzotti has never seen such a battle, but he has seen the two species together, basking in the sun and ignoring each other in the Fox Lakes, three little pockets of open water within Cape Sable, at the far southwest corner of the Florida peninsula.

"Later, during the 1930s and 1940s," Mazzotti continues, "collectors came down to capture crocodiles for exhibits, and eventually the total population might have dropped below 200 animals. But today we have more crocs in more places in Florida than we did 22 years ago when they were declared an endangered species."

Our first stop is the beach on Madeira Bay, a stretch of shoreline almost at the center of the peninsula, about twenty miles from the ranger station. This is prime crocodile habitat, where Taylor Slough spills freshwater into the bay, producing a briny blend that crocs love. Over the years, Mazzotti has learned that crocodiles favor this natural nesting area, with its sandy soil and abundance of cover from mangroves, sea grape, poisonwood, and bay cedar, among other plants. The chances of spotting little ones -- they usually hatch out at night -- are slim, says Mazzotti, but he wants to check on the nests. This seems a low-risk expedition, as least compared with the nighttime airboat adventure with Wasilewski. In daylight, even a novice should be able to avoid stepping on the tail of a full-grown crocodile.

When Mazzotti kills the 70-horsepower Johnson outboard a few feet offshore, Cherkiss jams a long pole into the sandy bottom and ties up the skiff. From the sudden stillness comes the first hint that this outing might prove not to be the cakewalk that the reporter and photographer -- a different photographer this time -- expected. The reporter and photographer are slathering insect repellent over their bare arms and legs, like weekend sunbathers would, but the veteran scientist and his experienced assistant are not bothering with that. Instead, Mazzotti is donning what appears to be a full suit of heavy-fabric body armor -- thick shirt, long pants, floppy, wide-brimmed hat, neckerchief -- and Cherkiss steps into a suit made of lightweight nylon mesh that makes him look like a beekeeper. Only air can penetrate this defense. "I've learned my lesson," says Cherkiss.

As Mazzotti and Cherkiss slosh to the beach, it still seems too sunny, bright, and breezy for any trouble, certainly not from mosquitoes. The water is warm, the sun is hot, and the only dark clouds on the horizon are miles away.

In minutes Mazzotti has located a nest. Lying right on top is an eight-foot-long crocodile looking as implacable as an ancient rock. Mazzotti notes raccoon tracks in the area, and later will point out several nests that these animals seem to have ravaged, eggshells ripped open in a telltale way. This croc may be guarding the nest.

The scientists and the photographer are within inches of the stoic creature when the reporter suddenly lets out a yelp, and then another, and the others wheel around to see the cause of his alarm. "Deer flies!" cries the reporter, slapping at his bare leg, too late to prevent the bite.

This wailing does nothing to disturb the gray-green croc, but the scientists' concentration has been broken. Without a word of sympathy for the victim in the scene -- the one under siege by stinging flies -- they trudge off down the beach to hunt for more nests. The mosquitoes are foglike here, too, and thirsty, but it is the deer flies that inflict the greater pain, making for exposed flesh like arrows to earth.

There are many nests, Mazzotti points out, noting the evidence of eggshell fragments and tail-drags in the sand, where the crocodiles have crawled up from the surf. About a half-mile down the beach the shoreline disappears in mangroves and the group heads back to the anchored boat.

In the northwestern sky behind the boat, it is impossible not to notice a huge, roiling blackness, an ominous thunderstorm in the distance. But there is also plenty of blue sky and sunshine promising safety in other directions. For the moment, at least, deer flies seem the most serious threat.

Back in the boat, Mazzotti buzzes east down the beach a few yards to another sandy area where more nests have been mapped. Seemingly oblivious to the approach of what by now seems to be shaping up as an end-of-the-world weather system, he and Cherkiss plunge into the bush. Meanwhile, the reporter and photographer hang out in knee-deep water, where they are free from most insect pests and able to devote their complete attention to the coming apocalypse.

"This looks serious," says one man.
"Mega-serious," says the other.
Lightning bolts -- jagged, silver-white against the darkness beyond, and miles long -- are now raining down in the near distance at both ends of a moving wall of weather. The lightning seems to come from thousands of miles up, as if straight from the hand of Zeus himself, and each vertical strike explodes with a crack of thunder. Fish and other creatures of the sea must be dying and floating to the surface just yards away, imagines the reporter, who has begun to notice that there are no other boats visible anywhere on Florida Bay. A flock of bleach-white egrets lifts off from the trees, posing a dramatic tableau against the ebony sky. Even the birds are running for cover.

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