By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
The June afternoon is surprisingly cool at this secret location in the Everglades.
Rich moss and strange plants — strangler figs, palm apples — lace the ghostly gray trunks of cypress trees that stretch from the water to a dense green canopy. Below the high, clear waterline, weird fish dart among fallen branches — long, swordlike gars crisscrossing bright clusters of neon tetras. The midday sun casts shafts of bright light onto the silty, iodine-color bottom. Somewhere here, there are gators.
Glenn Wilsey and Gus Batista pull up to the scene and prepare to explore. Batista lashes a long diver's knife to his leg and swats at the gathering storm of insects. Wilsey begins assembling $5000 worth of underwater camera equipment. A visiting family from Collier County looks on, aghast, from the windows of a passing white Buick sedan. These men are going for a swim ... in there.
"What're y'all doing?" asks an older woman with a beehive hairdo.
Wilsey and Batista do not respond.
Wilsey steps off the main road, down into the culvert. Often clad in camouflage snake-proof boots and a leather hat studded with alligator teeth, he cuts an odd figure in a snorkel mask and fins. The 52-year-old, with shoulder-length silver hair and a bushy beard, stands over six feet tall. He is given to passionate outbursts often presented in a cuddly Southern California accent.
Batista is more subtle about the way he carries himself. Still, the Cuban-American gator wrestler looks somewhat like an old-timey circus strongman, handlebar mustache and all. His tremendous arms would lead you to believe he could throw a Fiat at you if he were mad enough. Scars mark his shins, hands, and head. A giant alligator tooth between a pair of bear claws hangs from his neck. He wears bike shorts and a large, blousy Indian shirt made of embroidered hunter's camouflage.
The water is cold and clean. The current from the culverts slowly pushes the men back into a clearing as they search for their favorite reptile. With the exception of nagging horseflies, skeeters, and the possibility of tripping on a snout and losing a limb, this is perhaps the best natural swimming spot in South Florida.
After 40 minutes of fruitless poking around, Wilsey prepares to give up. "I think someone else has been out here messing with these gators," he says, shrugging. He returns to his car to retrieve a soggy Subway sandwich. Birds gather around him. "I feel bad eating in front of any animal and not sharing," says Wilsey, dripping portions of his lunch onto the road and into the water. "It's good for them."
Just then he spots a five-and-a-half-foot female alligator slithering between a pair of cypress trees. Wilsey and Batista slide back into the water and spook it out of its hiding spot. "Grab a sandwich and start tossing pieces of it to the gator," he says. A New Times reporter ambivalently obliges. Gradually enticed toward Wilsey, the animal inhales bits of turkey, ham, and tomato with a lazy loosening of its jaws.
"It's okay, baby," coos Wilsey, holding a hand high out of the water. "It's all right, sweetheart."
The creature's flat, black head moves slowly toward them as she tries to discern whether Wilsey's head is something she can eat. This is Wilsey's moment to shine. He begins to raise its head out of the water, but the gator turns and swims away. "Darn it!" he spits, taking the camera from Batista. "It got scared."
Now it is the gator wrestler's turn.
Batista stands silently before the animal, holding his arms motionless underwater. The alligator follows the trail of sandwich bits like a reptilian Pac-Man. A tomato breaks the surface with a plop and hovers just at the tip of Batista's nose. When he and the giant reptile are face to face, he throws a hand in an uppercut motion under its jaw and wraps his legs around the bucking torso. The animal rolls, taking Batista under as they thrash in the shallows. All that can be seen is white flying water. Wilsey peers through his pricey yellow cylinder, filming intently.
Then everything goes calm.
Suddenly the animal's head breaks the surface. A massive hand is wrapped tightly around its snout and the loose yellow skin beneath its chin. Batista emerges, teeth bared, holding the beast up like it's some drunken pipsqueak. The massive jaws pop open, revealing the creature's deadly ivory teeth. Just then a humongous deer fly lands on Batista's head and bites tiny chunks out of his scalp as he struggles to maintain a steady grip. The gator emits a demonic hiss; with a sudden crack from her tail, Batista's head flies back. Her spiny scutes sever the membrane connecting his top lip to his front teeth. Blood pours from his mouth. He drops her like a sack of potatoes and walks back toward the shore.
Dripping blood, he grins into the camera. "It wasn't nothing," he says.
"Damn, dude," Wilsey hollers like a thrilled child. "This stuff keeps me young. That gator would've fucked you up."
In bygone days, these waters rippled under the footsteps of similarly odd men — men who lived in piss-caked pants, flat skiffs, and shotgun shacks. Their needs were simple then: moonshine, tobacco, lard, and .22-caliber bullets.