On the Hunt
The channel markers grow farther apart, and the last vestiges of Marathon, about halfway down the Florida Keys, rapidly disappear behind the transom of our Protector 28 RIB. It's the next morning, and Dave and I are headed to Flamingo, a small outpost on the southwestern tip of the Florida mainland. With the lessons learned from those brave biologists, we're going to get a croc on our own-not catch one, just find one. Which is not that easy.
Flamingo, run by the National Park Service, is the only trace of civilization along the entire southern tip of Florida. The rest of the area houses only the creatures of the Everglades. Using Flamingo as our base camp, we'll take the kayaks stowed on the Protector's roof racks into the backwaters and start looking for crocs.
Our first anchorage is in a small creek off the East Cape Canal, just east of Cape Sable. Other than a marker sitting a quarter mile off the beach, the area looks as untouched as when the Calusa Indians made knives from shark's teeth here hundreds of years ago. Even with a chart, it's hard to keep your bearings. There are few landmarks, and one swampy mangrove pass looks just like the next. We'd be lost-literally-without our GPS.
Cherkiss and Parry had marked several places where we might find the elusive croc. We follow their tips: Look for the cold-blooded creatures sunning themselves onshore at first light, when they'll be less wary and more visible to our untrained eyes.
We ease the kayaks off the Yakima racks, the same ones you'd use on top of your car, clamped onto the hardtop's grabrails. I paddle down a small tributary canopied by overgrowth. It narrows to where I can barely take a full stroke. After 100 yards or so, I lose site of Dave and float alone in the creek. The sound of my kayak gently rippling the surface of the shallow water does little to upset the natural silence. Turning a bend, the rivulet widens, opening the canopy to sunlight. I stop in midstroke. There on the sandy bank sits a massive reptilian form, basking in the sun. I notice right away its thick snout and blackish-green coloring. It's an alligator, a far more common, though no less disconcerting, sight. The sleeping predator pays me no mind. Even so, I give him a wide berth.
In the afternoon we take the Protector around the point of Cape Sable and find a sandy spot to beach the boat. We walk far up the beach until the big RIB is a mere speck. We're searching for signs of reptilian activity, but ours are the only footprints. To the north is the endless maze of the Ten Thousand Islands. To the south, a long stretch of empty bay runs to the Keys. It's here that Dave makes a poignant observation, "If we get stuck, nobody will find us. Except the crocs." We promptly turn back toward the boat.
That evening, aboard the Protector, in Flamingo, we take stock. We saw an alligator sunning itself, watched an osprey fly overhead with a fish in its talons, and spotted a bobcat along the banks that disappeared in the blink of an eye. But we haven't yet found what we came to see.
Still, our odds are definitely better than they were 30 years ago, when fewer than 400 American crocodiles lived in the Everglades, warranting them a spot on the endangered species list.
The Crocodylus acutus ranges from Central America down to Peru. The tip of southern Florida is as far north as they go. Their home along the coast of the Everglades in Florida Bay is a small, fragile ecosystem, and when it's threatened, so are the crocs. Luckily for them, the Everglades are getting healthy again, and thanks to Cherkiss and Parry's tagging efforts, we know the crocs numbers are rising. We just can't seem to find their tanning beds.
Even so, the cruise has gone remarkably well. The Protector is proving to be an able and fast mothership. Being a RIB, it helps us make time through rough open water and is a stable platform for loading and unloading the kayaks. The cabin allows us to escape the elements. The four-stroke Yamahas keep our fuel consumption low, so we can extend our backcountry range. From an adventure-style cruising perspective, we have no complaints.