Chomp in the Swamp
As Joe Wasilewski pulls on his wading boots, sprays some Deep Woods Off on his bare arms and neck, and begins to haul his supplies -- spotlights, cloth sacks, a notebook, and scales and a ruler for taking measurements -- down to the dock, he tries to explain the appeal of venturing out in a mysterious, watery preserve that is acrawl with scores of animals known as nature's prototypical killing machines.
"I'm careful," says Wasilewski. "I know my limits with these animals. I've been bitten. If it's too big for me to grab, then I leave it alone."
This is reassuring news to a reporter and photographer who are tagging along with Wasilewski tonight on a foray into prime nesting grounds of the American crocodile, the rarest reptile in North America. A couple of days earlier Wasilewski had introduced his guests to tankfuls of ten-inch-long hatchlings kept in an air-conditioned laboratory; although toothy and spirited, these newborns came across as likably innocent. But out there beyond the dock are adult crocs, some of them thirteen feet long and weighing up to 800 pounds, with unknowable dispositions.
When the reporter asks Wasilewski if he carries a weapon -- a shotgun, a bazooka, something -- the answer is no. "So," the reporter says, "you're not going to try to bring into the boat anything bigger than a baby, right?"
"Well, I want to grab them all, because that's the way we gather information," says Wasilewski, who speaks in a raspy voice and is dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and black Converse high-tops. "It's like being a detective, trying to understand why these prehistoric creatures are still alive."
A sliver of a waxing moon hangs like a coy little wink in the western sky as Wasilewski climbs into the high seat of the airboat and cranks up the V-8 Cadillac engine. "Whoooo-eee!" he yelps, flushed with excitement at the prospect of the chase. "I never get tired of this."
Even with the moon, the stars, and the eerie sodium-lamp glow radiating from Florida Power & Light's Turkey Point nuclear power plant, it is dark out here in far southeast Dade County. It's after nine, but the temperature is still hovering in the low 80s, and the heavy, humid air is thick with flying insects. Clearly this is hostile territory, a subtropical, primordial Hades, the same steamy hell that persuaded the earliest colonial visitors to South Florida to get back on their boats, head out to sea, and write off this netherland as inhospitable and uninhabitable. The heat, the whirring blackness, the oppressive sultriness -- all are enough to make sensible folk run for sanctuary.
But field biologists such as Wasilewski are not bothered by insects, heat, darkness, and discomfort. Since 1989 he has worked for FP&L as a consulting biologist charged with monitoring the population of endangered American crocodiles living within the 22,000-acre power plant site. Wasilewski has spent countless hours here in the shadow of the twin towers of Turkey Point's containment buildings, both inside a modest on-site laboratory and outside in the muck and mire of the wetlands. He likes it here. "I'm doing something useful, trying to save these animals," he says.
Thirty years ago Crocodylus acutus was thought to be flirting with extinction. While alligators were thriving in Everglades National Park and in freshwater marshlands all over the state, the population of crocs shrank back to a lonely few in the brackish saltwater flats in the remotest sections of southern Dade and northern Monroe counties. Estimates of the total U.S. population fell to fewer than 200 animals.
But in the late 1960s, when FP&L began to build its power plant on Turkey Point, a hook of land due east of Homestead, no one knew for sure whether crocodiles lived in the neighborhood. Environmentalists objected to the power plant on other grounds: that it would destroy mangroves, cause pollution, or kill off sea grasses and other native vegetation with discharges of superheated water.
It wasn't until 1976, almost four years after the first nuclear reactor was fired up, that crocodiles were discovered nesting on Turkey Point. Not only did 168 miles of radiator-style cooling canals shelter the animals from human intruders and from the winds and chop of Biscayne Bay, but the earthen berms created by the dredging of the canals turned out to be ideal sites for the cavities that crocs dig to protect their developing young. A female crocodile lays from twenty to forty eggs in a single night, covers them with dirt, and then remains nearby to defend the nest for the 90-day incubation period.
Ross Wilcox, then FP&L's ecologist, was charged with spinning the crocodiles into public relations gold. He designed a management plan and got an annual budget of $50,000 to hire consultants and conduct research. Then the power company spread the news: Turkey Point was crocodile paradise.
Over the last twenty years, in an age of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Homer Simpson, FP&L has gotten a lot of goodwill mileage by riding the crocodile and other threatened species (such as manatees and loggerhead turtles) that live on the company's Florida properties. FP&L has won several awards for its conservation practices, but in recent years the company has cut back on its crocodile budget. Wilcox was downsized out of a job eighteen months ago. "The company has gone from being proactive to reactive, I think," says Wilcox, a Ph.D. biologist now at Florida Atlantic University's Center for Environmental Studies.
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.
With the twin towers of the nuclear reactors looming in the background, it is impossible not to wonder if this ocular glow isn't caused by strontium 90 fallout, or from years of seeping radiation and crocodile inbreeding. As we roar in toward the first nest, the reporter makes a silent vow to demand immediate shore leave if the any of animals examined has more than four legs or one head.
Just a few feet from a berm, Wasilewski and Lloyd spot a dozen or more hatchlings scrambling about under the low branches of a Brazilian pepper tree, but before starting to reach for the young crocs, they also see a seven-foot-long adult lurking on the bottom. "Let's get Mama out of here,"says Wasilewski. He pokes his hand in the water and casually touches the adult's tail, which sends the crocodile into a silent glide out of sight. Now Lloyd and Wasilewski stretch over the gunwales to grab handfuls of baby crocs, which they drop into a cloth sack. A freshly hatched crocodile is a thin, gangly squirmer with a rubbery feel, and it comes with the instinct to bite. The teeth are sharp as needles, able to break the tender skin of a computer jockey, but the jaws have no power.
"I admire the spunky ones," says Wasilewski, holding up a feisty hatchling, which produces a squeaky chirrup as the scientist stretches it out to examine the open umbilicus on its underside. "He could be the first one down the tarpon's belly, but you like to think that the ones with the spirit may make it."
With a mop-top cut to his reddish hair and a freckled complexion, Wasilewski is a boyish-looking man of 45 whose enthusiasm for his work betrays his good fortune in being able to make a living doing something he loves. He got hooked on reptiles, he says, after buying a chameleon from a circus huckster in his native Chicago when he was seven or eight. From there he went on to collect snakes, turtles, insects, and anything else that slithered or crawled.
Among the last of the draftees in 1972, he was trained by the U.S. Army to handle sentry dogs, but instead of being sent to Vietnam he was posted to a missile base in Carol City. While still in the service he began to work at the Miami Serpentarium -- now closed -- for legendary snake man Bill Haast. Wasilewski took a degree in biology from Florida International University in 1981, and, after Haast gave him a surplus crocodile, he gathered up his own collection of snakes, lizards, and spiders and opened a roadside zoo-cum-nature center on the Tamiami Trail.
From those beginnings Wasilewski went on to fashion a freelance career as scientist, businessman, animal handler, and entertainer. It pays enough to provide a living wage for him and his fifteen-year-old son Nick. As a result of his field work for FP&L, he has shared author credits on several studies published in scientific journals. But Wasilewski also runs a retail reptile shop, Natural Selections, out of a warehouse near Tamiami Airport; provides all types of lizards, alligators, and snakes from his personal menagerie for commercial shoots and films (such as Lords of the Everglades, a National Geographic Society special that aired in May); does show-and-tell sessions for schools; and will even wrestle a seven-foot-long croc or gator for a convention of car dealers or health-care professionals if the price is right -- about $1000.
In fact, on this very evening, Wasilewski goes to the mat with a crocodile. Near midnight Lloyd waves the light over a Brazilian pepper tree on a berm in Canal 10, Section 4, and Wasilewski guns the airboat toward the bank. A few feet away, with the engine killed and the aluminum craft coasting quietly toward the shore, Wasilewski suddenly lunges off the bow into the bushes and completely disappears. The three people still on board dodge branches, and Lloyd tries to throw some light on the area. A wild thrashing breaks out in the water. The reporter's thoughts flash back to Jaws and those one-ton saltwater crocs of the Nile. Should a radio call for help go out? Should someone else jump in after Wasilewski and feel around in there?
The cameraman is busy. The reporter has to take notes.
Just when someone may have muttered, "He's a goner," Wasilewski reappears from under the tree, with a Davy Crockett grin on his face and a four-foot-long crocodile writhing in his hands. "Got him!" he announces proudly. By the time he climbs back into the boat with his catch, Wasilewski notes the clipped scutes on the animal's tail that tell him this croc has been caught before. Records back in the lab will tell Wasilewski when and where. The field biologist measures and weighs the animal, admires it for a minute more, and then gently releases it over the side. "We can get a lot of information from this guy," he says as the croc disappears.
Indeed, information is power, especially for scientists working to improve the crocodiles' chances of survival. With their faint smiles, bug eyes, and cool leather exteriors, crocodiles small enough to be held in the hand are almost lovable. At that size, they hardly seem the horrible monsters that so fascinate and repel. Yet only about ten percent of hatchlings survive their first year, and even fewer will survive the four years needed to grow to four feet, Wasilewski says. Raccoons are notorious for eating eggs; hatchlings get swallowed by large wading birds and fish; and fire ants can strip a baby croc into a baby skeleton in minutes. Not to mention cars, which hit them when they dare to cross highways.
And then there are the acts of brutish human beings. In May a 23-year-old Key Largo man caught a nine-foot-long crocodile with a four-inch treble hook baited with a chicken. He was charged with two misdemeanors, including interfering with an endangered species, and he faces a fine of up to $500 and a sentence of up to 60 days in jail. And in July four men and two teenagers in Plant City, near Tampa, were charged with climbing over a fence at a reptile park and clubbing a pair of crocodiles to death with wooden planks.
So what is it about crocodiles that stirs such primitive emotions in people?
Around the world, crocodiles have always been hated and feared, symbolizing in some cultures an evil savagery. Wasilewski insists that members of the species he knows so well are shy, wary of people, and not aggressive. In fact, there is only one documented case in Florida in which an American crocodile has attacked and killed a human, and that occurred in 1925 when a fourteen-footer reared up and seized a Biscayne Bay surveyor who had already fired two gunshots into the beast. The croc survived and was shipped off to Silver Springs, near Ocala, where it was trained to perform, under the name of Zulu, for tourists.
But what about the man-eaters of Africa and Asia? What about the saltwater crocs that are said to have ravaged a thousand Japanese soldiers retreating through a Burmese swamp during World War II? What about the American Peace Corps volunteer from Cornell who was eaten by a crocodile in Ethiopia in 1966? And how about the 40 passengers on a sinking Indonesian ferryboat that crocs devoured in 1976? Don't all crocs share the same family values?
In modern-day South Florida, the crocodiles' very limited home turf ranges from north Key Largo, through Everglades National Park, including Florida Bay, to Turkey Point. There is anecdotal evidence that the range is expanding, however. Crocodiles have been found nesting on Marco Island, for example, and they've been spotted as far north as Fort Lauderdale.
Veteran crocodile researcher Paul Moler, a wildlife biologist with the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, says he is "cautiously optimistic" about the animal's recovery, and he lauds the state's restoration efforts, especially a project along Card Sound Road designed to safeguard Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
Still, Moler worries about roadkills, pollution, egg poaching by humans and raccoons, and exotic plants such as Australian pine that disrupt nesting sites. Most of all, though, it's people he worries about. "People think they're so Godalmighty powerful and important, but in the real world, they're not," says Moler, who has been researching crocodiles for twenty years. "People are like every other animal and plant, except they are bigger consumers.
"Studying a crocodile is giving us a gauge of the overall health of the whole world," argues Moler, who has tagged 49 hatchlings this year in north Key Largo. "If the animal's population is decreasing, heading toward extinction, we need to know: Are we poisoning ourselves? Ultimately, it could be our survival at stake."
Also tracking the crocodile's recovery is Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida professor of wildlife ecology who works out of the Everglades Research and Education Center in Belle Glade. With funding from several agencies, including the U.S. Park Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the South Florida Water Management District, Mazzotti is charged with monitoring nesting, birth, and survival rates of crocodiles from Everglades National Park to the Coral Gables Waterway.
For parts of the summer Mazzotti leaves his home in Fort Lauderdale for a small camper parked in a field behind the Key Largo Ranger Station. From here he monitors the nesting areas along the northeast edges of Florida Bay, the shallow, island-dotted estuary that composes the southern end of Everglades National Park.
On this Saturday Mazzotti and 24-year-old graduate student Mike Cherkiss intend to check the locations of nest sites they have previously identified to see if the eggs have hatched. As Cherkiss gasses up a fifteen-foot skiff, which has the words Croc Doc painted on the center console, Mazzotti expresses confidence that the federally financed Everglades area replumbing plan, designed to restore the natural freshwater flow to the south, bodes well for the long-term recovery of Florida's crocodile population. "The greater threat comes on the southwest coast, near the Marco Island airport, where several animals have been found, and in Rookery Bay," says Mazzotti. "People are not used to seeing crocodiles there. So while we have been busy trying to fix things on the southeast coast, they haven't quite caught up with that spirit on the other side."
The day is typical for July. By early afternoon a few puffy clouds float into view, and the temperature heads toward 90 degrees. Mazzotti is 48 years old, balding, brown from the sun, with a Buddha belly and an encyclopedic knowledge of crocodiles built up over twenty years in the field. He has published many scientific papers on crocs, he knows the lore, and he loves to talk. "In the early part of this century," he says in an accent that gives away his Long Island roots, "killing crocs for sport was big business. People would pay to be guided into Card Sound and around northern Monroe County on hunting expeditions."
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.
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.
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.
For at least 30 minutes we sit in the boat, in the rain, listening to the voices of Armageddon. When the rain, lightning, and thunder begin to move off to the southeast, a dim gray horizon line appears to the north. Mazzotti sits up and starts the engine, and Cherkiss yanks the pole from the sand and slides it into the boat. In another 30 minutes we pull into the dock at Key Largo.
"Did you guys get caught in that?" a young woman asks as we unload.
"Got a little of it," says Mazzotti.
Indeed, we got only a little of it. Winds gusting higher than 50 miles per hour passed through the Keys, overturning sailboats in Key Largo, uprooting trees in Big Pine Key. A special marine warning from the National Weather Service cautioned about "rough seas and deadly lightning." If safe harbor cannot be found, the statement advised, "stay below deck or keep a low profile and keep away from ungrounded metal objects. All should wear flotation devices."
"Endangered American crocodile?" the reporter cries to Mazzotti. "We could have been killed!"
"That was a case where the storms came together, and we just couldn't run," he replies. "I didn't see how to get away from it.
"Things like the weather are the greatest threat out here," he admits, "and it certainly gets my heartbeat going faster than anything else. It's thrilling when you're out there on a fifteen-foot skiff -- you are out there, experiencing what nature is putting out, and you're filled with sensation."
"We're safe now," the professor continues. "But the crocodile is still endangered.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.