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Close Encounter of the Crocodile Kind

Tooth or Consequences

On my list of experiences I most want to avoid while paddling through the Everglades, being struck by lightning ranks second only to being eaten by an alligator or crocodile.

And on this, the fifth day of our trip celebrating the 50th anniversary of Everglades National Park, we watch with alarm as a bank of thick black clouds rolls toward us.

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Monitor photographer Bob Harbison and I have just crossed Broad River Bay and are heading for the Gulf of Mexico. As usual, there's no dry land for refuge. And the last place we want to be with bolts of electricity ripping through the humid air is bobbing around on the water in our aluminum canoes. As we listen for thunder, I notice something strange and beautiful in the darkening sky. Swallows. Tens of thousands of them are riding the turbulent air currents at the edge of the approaching cold front. They soar and dive, filling the sky as thick as ashes rising above a grass fire.

Within a few minutes they're past us, and so is the front. The temperature drops quickly from the 90s into the mid-80s as we enter a narrow waterway called The Cutoff that leads to the Rodgers River.

Having dodged a downpour and avoided any lightning, we now find ourselves entering prime alligator habitat. And I begin to contemplate the No. 1 item on my list of experiences I wish to avoid. Alligators and crocodiles are particularly violent hunters when they are grappling with large prey. They bite into their target and then roll over and drag it underwater to drown it. Then they carry the future meal back to their den, a cave in the mud bank, where the meat is left to age and tenderize until it approaches a reptile's sense of delicious.

By now we have paddled past enough large alligators to know that wild gators are generally shy and only want to be left alone. But still I wonder what would happen if we encounter a really big fella who is having a bad day.

After passing several gators, we drift into the Rodgers River and discover one of the treasures of our trip. This is a true wild river, with mangrove branches bending low and dipping into the black water as it glides toward the Gulf. Great blue herons and egrets populate nearby branches. A seven-foot gator basks on the bank. He is midnight black, the exact color of the river mud.

We drift silently with the tide for several miles and then notice another alligator cruising at the edge of the river. But this alligator looks different from any alligator we've seen yet. It is more brown than black. And rather than the distinctive broad snout of a gator, this animal has a relatively narrow nose.

I dip a finger into the water and taste it. It is salty. (Alligators prefer fresh water.) "I think that might be a crocodile," I tell Bob.

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We encounter another on the next bend in the river, and another, and another. Overall we see at least five crocodiles in about a mile-long stretch of river. They are all about the same size, three to four feet.

The presence of American crocodiles in the Rodgers River is a surprise, because everything I read in my research prior to the trip puts this endangered species much farther south.

In fact, we aren't the only ones surprised. After our trip, Frank Mazzotti, a professor at the University of Florida and a leading authority on crocodiles, says we've made a significant discovery of a previously unknown group of nesting crocodiles. They are near a section of the park where crocodiles had only been seen passing through in years past.

The fact that they are now inhabiting the riverbank is evidence of one of the great environmental success stories under way in the park. It's also a vivid illustration of the importance of restoring and maintaining this park as a pristine wilderness, enabling animals such as the American crocodile to fight their way back from extinction.

There are only a handful of places American crocodiles nest. "This is a new finding for crocodiles in Florida," Dr. Mazzotti says. "They always were described as being in the southeastern part of the peninsula, especially when people were talking about nesting.''

Besides our discovery, nesting crocodiles have been spotted as far north as Marco Island and Sanibel Island. "This is an endangered-species recovery in progress," Mazzotti says.

Man-eating beasts or shy critters?

At the time of our journey, I hadn't done extensive research on crocodile behavior, and I had the mistaken impression that crocodiles were by nature much more aggressive and dangerous than alligators. I remembered news reports of man-eating crocs in Australia exploding out of the water to drag human prey from boats. But Mazzotti has spent most of his life working with wild crocodiles in Florida. He says that unlike their cousins in Africa and Australia, American crocodiles are even shyer than alligators and generally do not reach sizes large enough to consider making a meal of a human.

That is very reassuring sitting in Mazzotti's office, but out here I still have some concern. There are about eight inches between the surface of the water and the gunwale of our canoes, a distance a submerged croc could cover in about a second.

It doesn't help that the tide has shifted, and we are fighting a 4-m.p.h. current. We paddle as long as we can against the flow but then decide to anchor in the river and wait for the tide to turn. As we prepare lunch, a three-foot crocodile crosses the river and stops beside a clump of mangroves 20 feet away. He watches us eat peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

Don't go there, Bob!

We wait three hours for the tide and passing rain squalls, then continue down the river to the Gulf of Mexico. Our next campsite on Highland Beach is just around a sandy point. I paddle across a shallow, muddy shoal toward a large piece of driftwood. It isn't until I am about 40 feet away that I notice the "driftwood" has the same profile as the crocodiles we've just seen. But this one is about nine feet long.

The water here is 18 inches deep over mucky sea bottom - ideal for a marauding crocodile, which can move with great speed in shallow water. As for us, there's no place to run or hide.

I give a wide berth to the crocodile, but Bob is headed straight for it.

Motioning with my arms, I yell. But the wind is up and he can't hear me. He keeps paddling. He is 30 feet away, and closing. "Crocodile," I yell. "Get out of there."

The crocodile is now eyeing Bob, and it looks to me like they're about to collide. Finally Bob veers away. I hold my breath. The croc turns and watches Bob pass, but doesn't move closer. (Let the record show, Mazzotti knows his stuff.)

Nonetheless, meeting that crocodile is one of the most tense moments of our journey. But as we would learn the next day, crocodiles aren't the only animals here worthy of respect.

* Dec. 18: Stuck in the mud at Highland Beach where we're on the trail of the "Bambi" of the Everglades. Dec. 22: Midnight paddling and heading home. Earlier parts ran Dec. 5, Dec. 9, and Dec. 11.

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