Chomp in the Swamp

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

Still the researchers are ashore. As a light rain begins to fall, it comes to the reporter's attention that the Croc Doc does not even have a Bimini top to hide under. Nor do the tourists on this trip carry raingear of any kind. We are not even sure if there is a radio or a cellular telephone in the professor's equipment box.

Finally, Mazzotti and Cherkiss appear, walking along the beach at a leisurely pace. If they are concerned at all about being pounded back to primordial dust by a colossal storm, they are not letting on. Once in the boat, however, Mazzotti looks around and spots a patch of blue sky to the southwest. He starts the motor, wheels the Croc Doc around, opens up the Johnson, and for several exhilarating minutes the reporter takes heart that disaster can be skirted. Lightning and the blue-black shroud seem to be closing in around us, but we are flying over the water at 35 miles per hour toward rays of sunshine, and hope is ascendant.

Then whuuumph!
The boat shudders to a stop, the motor dies, and we look back to see a three-yard trail of sandy turbulence where the propeller blades have dug into the bottom of the bay. We are dead in the water, stuck in a shallow bed of turtle grass, many thousands of yards from the closest shore. And now we are sitting ducks in what looks to be the very center of the 500 square miles of Florida Bay.

"Out of the boat!" yells Mazzotti, who directs us to push the skiff toward deeper water while Cherkiss fishes for a piece of monofilament line he can use to clean out the engine's jammed cooling canal. Standing in water up to midcalf, we hear the rain make an ominous hissing sound on the surface, as if the sea were full of serpents. Booming thundercracks and lightning bolts strike with increasing frequency. The wind has picked up; it is tossing the normally placid bay waters into a menacing chop. The reporter's anxiety level now surpasses the mark set the week before in the crocodile-infested, radiation-hot canals of the power plant.

Lightning, as anyone knows, is fickle. Even though Florida is a lightning-rich state, and an average of ten people per year in the U.S. are electrocuted by nature, the normal odds of anyone in the state being struck are only one in 600,000. A resident of the Sunshine State has a greater chance of being blown away by a hurricane, getting wiped out in a drive-by, or winning a Fantasy Five.

But of course those odds pertain to normal conditions. And the four people clinging to the Croc Doc are not in normal circumstances. They are offering up their heads as the highest points in all of Florida Bay in the midst of a raging electrical storm that has now overtaken the entire visible world. All is black, with soft shadings of gray, illuminated by frequent, random bursts of lightning that crack open the darkness and send shivers down the spine.

So this is the destiny toward which this assignment was leading, the reporter now muses. Forget killer crocodiles; they were only a diversion, as were the mosquitoes, the deer flies, the threat of becoming forever lost or radiation-sick in an inescapable maze at a nuclear power plant. This is the way we die, by electrocution, at the end of a zillion-kilowatt energy transference. Naturally the crocodiles will survive to clean up afterward.

With the mud cleared from the engine, Mazzotti raises the propeller to knock off the uprooted grass. Treading the spongy, foot-sucking bottom, we push the boat into deeper water, and Mazzotti calls us back over the gunwales. The engine reignites. We speed on, but there is nowhere to run. There are no rays of sunshine or patches of open sky. Realizing this, Mazzotti heads for Club Key, a small island he wants to check for nests anyway, and we plant the pole and tie up on the lee side, about 30 yards offshore. The twelve-foot pole looks a lot like a lightning rod, so when Mazzotti and Cherkiss head for the island, the reporter and photographer follow. But the scientists, covered now in raingear, crash through the mangroves and disappear, leaving the reporter and photographer to linger along the shoreline. Despite the rain, the deer flies and mosquitoes are still on the make, attacking bare legs, arms, and face with predacious glee. The choices now are clear: to die by lightning in the open boat, or to die by lightning on the island, but only after being first tortured by blood-sucking bugs.

"I like to stay with the boat," says Mazzotti as he emerges from the thicket and splashes back out to the Croc Doc. "Unless it gets real bad."

By the time the reporter gets there, Mazzotti has pulled his floppy hat down over his face and assumed a supine position across the stern of the boat. His eyes are not visible, but as the rain falls down, the lightning flashes, and doom grows ever nearer, the professor seems to be sleeping. He is completely motionless, facing God, accepting fate. Cherkiss and the photographer are also sitting in the boat quietly, eyes closed; they may also be asleep, or in prayer. The reporter climbs into the boat, huddles on the deck, and hugs his knees.

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