The first thing we see is its eyes, two orange embers glowing against the night. Mark Parry keeps all 200,000 candle-watts of his spotlight aimed at those fiery dots while Mike Cherkiss idles down and points our skiff toward the mangroves. We inch forward, whispering, waiting for the prehistoric creature to take shape in the light. Drifting up to the trees, we finally see its massive, shovel-like head. The full length of his muscular, leathery body is tucked under the root canopy, we can barely see it. Parry and Cherkiss step out of the boat and…wait a minute…guys…what are you doing?
I know what my buddy Dave and I are not doing-going in after them. We’ve come to the Everglades in search of the rare American crocodile, not to become midnight snacks. The odds of finding one on our own are against us, so we asked the two biologists to show us some tricks. Now they’re in the water with one-and it has really big teeth.
** Beauty of the Beast**
There are roughly 1,000 crocodiles scattered along the southern tip of Florida, the only place in this country they inhabit. The best place to look for them is in the brackish waters of the crocodile sanctuary in Everglades National Park. But you can’t go there unless accompanied by scientists. So now I’m wondering: If Parry and Cherkiss get eaten, do we lose our permission slips?
Parry wades toward the animal and quietly slips a noose made of twined wire over its head. Surprisingly, the croc doesn’t react. He’s used to being at the top of the food chain. Not much bothers him. The noose is connected to a Thompson snare: an 8′-long pole made from a tomato stake with a length of rope attached to the wire. Cherkiss cleats the rope’s bitter end to the boat’s bow, gets behind the croc, and taps it gently on its tail. The night-black water explodes.
The animal most people think of when you say crocodile, is actually an alligator. There’s a big difference. Crocs have a longer, narrower snout with teeth that stick out from its jaw. You can see a gator’s teeth only when its mouth is open. From far away, a croc is distinguishable by its light-brown skin; an alligator sports a dark green hide. Gators live throughout the Southeast, and their habitat puts them into frequent contact with humans. They’re also more aggressive, meaning they’re far more likely to roam from the water in search of food-which in developed areas consists mostly of poodles. But the crocodile is an elusive creature.
Even here, in the tangles of the Everglades, we’re lucky to see one at all. Parry and Cherkiss insist that, unlike its African cousins shown shredding wildebeests on Animal Planet, the American crocodile is timid and shy. Watching the melee under the mangrove roots, I’m not convinced.
Back in the boat, Cherkiss eases the engine into reverse to slowly pull the snared croc from the trees. He kills the engine, and it’s the croc’s turn. For the next hour, the animal pulls us all over Little Madeira Bay. “We’re tiring him out so we can get him in the boat,” says Cherkiss. In the boat?
Cherkiss and Parry are biologists from the University of Florida. They make their living capturing, tagging, and monitoring crocodiles. Though the animals live in brackish water, they are dependent on the freshwater flowing to Florida Bay from the Everglades. So the university’s study not only indicates the vitality of this endangered species, it gauges the health of the entire ecosystem as well.
The two scientists haul the croc onto the foredeck, moving quickly to secure it. Cherkiss sits on its shoulders and tapes its mouth and eyes with duct tape. Dave and I stand warily in the stern. We’ve captured a teenager, a 10′-long male. Markings on its tail indicate that he’s been tagged before, in 1996. “Isn’t he a beautiful animal?” asks Parry. Yes, he is and, for the moment, remarkably docile. But I’m not the one who’ll have to take off the tape.
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.
The next morning, before the sun rises over the mangroves to the east, we’re underway. We turn the corner out of the marina, and head back into the Bay. Just before throttling up, we pass a mangrove island with a small stretch of muddy beach. There, sunning himself, is what we’ve been looking for all along: a genuine American crocodile. He looks like a concrete lawn statue, frozen, with his mouth open just enough to be menacing.
There’ll be no in-water tagging for us. We sit on the Protector’s gunwale watching until the beast gets bored and slithers away. He’s one in a thousand. We’ve beaten the odds.
** How to wrestle a gator:** There’s one thing to remember about alligators when you wrestle them: Time is on their side. “Time to wait for you to make a mistake,” says Tim Williams, the Dean of Wrestling at Gatorland, in Orlando, Florida, where he’s been going mano-a-repto with the cagey beasts for the last 30 years. You’re far more likely to come across an alligator than a croc in your boating adventures-gators are abundant throughout the southeastern United States-and one day, you may be tempted to tangle with one. Bad idea. But if you have your heart set on it and don’t want to lose an appendage, follow the techniques Williams taught me during my battle royale with “Martin,” an 8′-long, 140-pound gator.
 Step in the water, and grab the alligator by his tail. He won’t see you behind him, but make sure his nearby friends aren’t waiting to drag you underwater for a game of Tear Apart the Idiot.
 Hold his tail with both hands, and pull him backward onto shore. Lift his tail high, so he can’t dig his legs in to resist.
 Now comes the fun part. Quickly let go of his tail and jump on his back, keeping all of your body parts out of his line of sight. A gator can turn and bite halfway up its own tail in half a second.
 Put your hands on the back of the gator’s neck, and squeeze your knees against his back legs to pin them against his side. I neglected this crucial step, and Martin dragged me back into the water faster than I could say, “Uncle.”
 Cover his eyes with duct or electrical tape. This will calm him, and if he can’t see you, he’ll have a harder time biting you.
 Grab his head around the upper and lower jaws, keeping your thumbs perpendicular to his mouth so they don’t accidentally slip into his waiting teeth. Slowly lift his head, pointing his snout to the sky, to keep him from trying to move forward. You know how everyone says you can hold a gator’s mouth shut with your thumb and pinky? Not true. You need both hands. Trust me.
 Prepare for dismount. Take the tape off his eyes, place your hands on his neck, rock forward, and spring back. Go straight back as fast as you can-gators can spin on a dime-and count your fingers.