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The fourth hole at Crandon Golf at Key Biscayne is particularly treacherous. There are brackish ponds surrounded by mangroves on both sides of the tee. An errant drive can send a ball flying into muddy oblivion. But it's not just water that presents a threat. A duffer who recently hooked a shot into the drink decided to plunge in up to his shoulders to retrieve the ball. When he extended his arm and turned his head, he found himself staring into the eyes of an American crocodile.
You can imagine the story in the the Weekly World News. It would include something like this: "After the mandibles of death were finished, nothing remained but a five iron and a torn piece of plaid."
In reality the golfer escaped unharmed. But the story illustrates a new reality that humans must learn to accommodate: The endangered croc is making a comeback.
Spurred by encounters between humans and the resurgent reptiles, county parks staffers are trying to quickly educate the public. They are preparing brochures and have started placing signs in croc-accessible public areas. "The die-hard golfers who like to go after their golf balls get aggravated and want [the crocodiles] removed," explains park naturalist Paula Schneeberger. "[But] crocs are not aggressive and they mainly hunt at night."
Parks officials believe two juvenile crocodiles have taken up residence on Key Biscayne. (Crocs have been seen as far north as Broward County.) A third reptile has been sighted, but is thought to be an exotic caiman that escaped from captivity. The pair divides its time between the golf course and a recently restored tidal marsh at the nearby Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area. They feast on iguanas that can grow to the size of large cats, which the crocs catch by yanking them from low-hanging tree branches.
A hundred years ago probably several thousand crocodiles roamed the southern coast of the Florida peninsula, the only place in the United States where they are found. By the Sixties the population fell to a few hundred at most. Poachers killed or captured some and developers paved over many of the estuaries and coastal areas where the animals lived and nested.
Today the population has risen to about 600. Biologists trace the rejuvenation primarily to an increase in habitable areas. Besides restoring traditional marshes and mangroves, man has unwittingly built ideal crocodile homes at golf courses and nuclear power plants.
In the Seventies the animals began using 168 miles of cooling canals at the Turkey Point nuclear facility as a hatchery. The warm water and marly berms are perfect for the reptiles, which are shy and finicky about where they lay their eggs. These days there are between 30 and 50 crocs at Turkey Point, depending on the time of year. On a recent morning scientists counted sixteen crocodiles floating and sunning themselves along a five-mile stretch.
In fact the animals have been doing so well at Turkey Point that some migrated north to escape the crowd. (Male crocs are territorial and demand a substantial amount of space.)
But crocodiles aren't likely to overwhelm South Florida, scientists say. Although a nest can hold as many as 25 eggs, only a small percentage of the reptiles survive. Baby crocs have a plethora of predators: fish, raccoons, hawks, even the fire ant. Joe Wasilewski, a biologist who works at Turkey Point, recalls surveying nests one year and discovering an egg that swarmed with fire ants. When he returned the following day there was nothing left but the hatchling's skeleton. "We are not going to be up to our ass in crocodiles," he concludes.
There are well over one million alligators in Florida, far more than the number of crocodiles. Alligators have a wider, more square snout and are darker in color. Crocodiles have a tapered jaw, their back armor is bumpier, and they are more agile. Although the two are generally similar in size, American crocodiles in the United States rarely grow beyond fifteen feet, whereas alligators have reached nineteen feet.
Parks department naturalist Roger Hammer believes crocodiles are unfairly stigmatized. Some picnickers recently observed Hammer posting a warning sign at a county marina and asked whether the reptiles were in the lagoon. When he replied in the affirmative, they hurriedly packed their things and left. "The perception of the public is that crocs are evil animals when really the alligators are the ones to watch if you have children playing around them," Hammer insists.
The mistaken belief that crocodiles are dangerous comes from television nature programs, Hammer asserts. The shows generally feature varieties common in Africa or the Asia-Pacific area. These species are larger and more aggressive than their American brethren; they sometimes wrestle unsuspecting zebra or wildebeest to death, while American crocodiles generally trap smaller mammals, crustaceans, fish, and birds.
Hammer says there are no recorded incidents of croc attacks in Florida, but some locals tell a colorful tale. Supposedly in 1925 a croc killed a surveyor on Key Biscayne after the man blasted it twice with a shotgun. In true South Florida fashion, the croc is alleged to have survived and gone on to a successful career as a tourist attraction.