As Mazzotti determines that their mother has already dug into the nest and that there has been at least a partial hatch, tiny crocodiles begin to appear on roots, on the bank and sprawled on the water's surface like bathtub toys. Mazzotti wants them. I reach out and catch one...two...three...four. I place the crocs in a nylon bag and turn to see Mazzotti already submerged to his chest, making his way through a maze of overarching mangrove roots, three crocs in each hand. Together we catch 13.
Because the average clutch of 39 eggs takes approximately 86 days to incubate and may hatch over several days, and because some females nest communally, I ask if there might be viable eggs left in the nest cavity.
We scramble up the bank and tap on the trunk of a buttonwood whose roots reach into the nest. An underground chorus rises from the marl. We tap again. The hatchlings chirp some more. Mazzotti gently digs into the hard-packed marl. "My mother used to joke about the hatchlings being my kids," he says. "Come nesting season, don't bother me. If there's a wedding or a funeral, forget it, 'cause I'm watching my kids being born. Sorry."
One egg is hatching, so we wait it out, swatting mosquitoes and deerflies and no-see-ums. Then we cover the nest so that the rest of the crocodiles will have a chance to hatch.
Back at camp on Key Largo we take a few crocodiles out of their temporary digs—a cooler—where they have been swarming with their siblings. They are about to be weighed and measured. Each will also have its scales clipped in such a way so as to leave both an easily readable three-digit identification number and a birthplace code on the croc's ample tail. For example, a clipped number 7 scale on the right side of the double row of scales indicates that the croc was born in the Everglades.
The hatchlings are rubbery. On top they are gray-brown, intricately banded, stippled and mottled with black, like pieces of hand-tooled wood. This coloring can blend into a variety of backgrounds, and the crocs retain it for life. The undertail is white flecked with black. The animal's mustard-colored eyes have vertical black slits for pupils—night eyes. The teardrop-shaped ear openings slant away from the eyes. There are four toes on the animal's front feet, five on the hind. Only the first three toes of each foot are clawed. Proportionally, a hatchling's snout is shorter and smaller than an adult's.
A hatchling may look nothing like a human infant, but it is almost as adorable. The little crocs open their mouths but do not bite. These are maws that will one day pulverize large fish, small turtles, and herons, ducks, raccoons, perhaps even deer—virtually anything a crocodile can overpower and drown. It is easier to see the tiny rows of salt glands on the floor of a baby croc's mouth than to see those notorious but still nearly undetectable teeth.
Several days later, after the Taylor River hatchlings have been processed and released in the vicinity of their nest site, Mazzotti finds another clutch of creek-nesting crocodiles. Tonight he will process them and return them to Davis Creek, a short, mangrove-choked tributary that connects Joe Bay to Florida Bay. Mazzotti thinks he can take his skiff down the creek if I sit in the bow and saw mangrove branches and roots, hauling us downstream like a seaman pulling up an anchor.
Leaving Key Largo an hour before sunset, we see curtains of rain separated by thick yellow bars of sunlight slanting toward the western horizon. To the north the sky is bruised and congested. Visibility is reduced to a mile, and to the east, ragged patches of pink-tinted clouds drift south. Within 15 minutes the sky becomes a kaleidoscope, a Grand Canyon of the atmosphere. The congested north fractures into layers of gold, orange and pink, and in the east what was pink is now violet. Everything glows: Mazzotti's tanned face, emerald leaves, the gray, barkless mangroves that reach from the shallow water.
At Joe Bay just after sunset we are drifting on a mirror of russet water and processing hatchlings. The mosquitoes are relentless. Inside Davis Creek, trees close around us, sealing off the sky. I have a flashlight and a saw, which allow me to function as a headlight, a tree surgeon and an auxiliary motor. The flashlight wedged between my legs, I saw and pull, saw and pull. We inch forward, soaked from rainwater that pours off the leaves. Mazzotti sees the widely spaced red eyes of a crocodile off the bow. A tarpon jumps into the boat, and Mazzotti quickly tosses it back into the water. Eventually we give in to the inevitable forces of nature that have clogged the creek, and we release the hatchlings, reached earlier on foot, well short of their nest. Twelve tiny crocodiles linger around some roots, while a 13th dives. When the engine revs, the brood scatters.