By Greg Brostowicz
I'll never forget those glowing red eyes. The spotlight that rhythmically scanned the canals from left to right seemed to continuously engage them. It was as if they were staring and purposely hiding the sizable creatures below the surf. They seemed to be everywhere.
We had maneuvered through the radiator-like cooling canals for more than four hours. It was around midnight, and we were miles away from any type of civilization. Our repetitious path only reinforced this. Each northward trip brought the glow of the Turkey Point power plant which served as the North Star both as a compass point and the soft glow illuminating the sides of the waterway. The sojourns south, however, emphasized the remoteness and brought a blanket of black unlike anything that I'd ever seen. It was truly humbling.
Throughout the night, our "crew" of four and this 15-foot flatboat diligently stayed the course: sticking to our quadrant; checking in hourly with the other two boats in action; capturing crocs 6 feet or smaller (soon-to-be-nesting females are purposely avoided); gathering data; tagging unknowns; releasing safely; and looking for more. Kenny, from Land Utilization, drove the airboat as if it were situated in a theme park and there was a hidden track below the surface. Mike, a real reptile guy from the University of Florida was mixing between "hand capturing" and using a snare to get them in the boat. Our biologist, Jodie, was clearly pleased to be in the field and quick to take action. Performing a dance-like routine with the other two on a small dance floor as the crocodiles had their snouts taped and brought onto the boat.
Headlamps shined so that measurements could be taken as someone cautiously sat on the croc and covered its eyes to make it feel trapped and remain calm. Every piece of information was like a new gem for the crew. Everything from identifying the gender (for those who don't know how this is done, I won't spoil the fun, look it up) to rubbing a sensor over the belly to see if it had eaten a fellow inhabitant was fascinating. Earlier in the day, when we drove around the facility, FPL's croc expert heir apparent, Mario, much to my amazement, could identify the crocodiles from afar --- telling the history of some. Though not a secret, hours later, I witnessed how this type of tracking was possible and how important it was for the monthly non-capture events. The scales on the tail are used as a marking mechanism. The dual row and the single scales toward the end of the tail are methodically trimmed to create a numeric identification. There was one captured during my excursion that had not yet been tagged this way. I was holding the crocodile down when the cuts occurred and the creature did not flinch, squirm or squeal. It was clear that this seemingly barbaric act had no effect other than aesthetics that serve an important purpose. In addition, a microchip was inserted through a syringe with surgical precision. This act also included rubbing alcohol to help prevent infection. Time and again this was the routine, save the new tagging for the others. Instead the scale pattern was read and entered into the log.
As we entered what would be our final canal, the lamp from one of our partner boats was upon us. I couldn't help to wonder if the glow of our eyes was noticed by the crocodiles, making a similar impression. We met in the middle of the waterway, exchanged information and watched Mike hop onto the other boat. He was not ready for the night to end and wanted to explore further. Kenny, who had to clock-in less than six hours from this point, and my host Jodie who needed to spend the next morning assisting with well installations, headed back to the dock.
The beating rain had stopped. The sound of the airboat was a welcome melody from the hiss of crocodiles. Though my adrenaline had been pumping during the excursion, I was never afraid. Maybe it was the thorough safety precautions or the professionalism shown by the regulars. Now, there was just a feeling of satisfaction. First, that I was unscathed. Second, that I took the chance to experienced something I never expected just weeks before. Third, that I saw firsthand the company's extraordinary commitment to the environment. The data gathered on my one night will be combined with that of the two previous nights, examined extensively, shared with government agencies and used to make sure the strong growth and longevity of the American crocodile remains for decades to come.