Hearing the subterranean cries of her young, the crocodile digs open the womb of sand, picks up a hatchling in her teeth and ferries it to the nearby shore of Florida Bay. By dawn, as their mother returns to a shallow inland bay to resume her solitary life in the Everglades, a knot of tiny crocodiles has formed in the beach wrack.
To cross open water, a hatchling crocodile, which wiggles like a nine-inch fishing lure, must pass through a gantlet of tarpon and snook. If it survives it may live for 40 or 50 years, grow to be more than 12 feet long, weigh nearly 1,000 pounds and never lay eyes on a human being...other than Frank Mazzotti.
Mazzotti, a University of Florida wildlife scientist, has been monitoring crocodiles in Everglades National Park for 17 years. He has measured, weighed, poked, taped, tied, tagged and clipped more crocodiles in Florida than anyone else. He has even given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a drowning hatchling that was pulled below the surface by a hungry blue crab; he scaled his lips around the crocodile's throat and blew gently into its lungs until it coughed up water. (Mazzotti, who has eclectic reading habits, credits his knowledge of reptilian CPR to a Mad Magazine cartoon entitled "How to Give Artificial Respiration to a Lizard.")
Crocodiles are dual citizens of freshwater and salt water, of land and sea. Because hatchlings thrive in estuaries in which salt levels are about 10 parts per 1,000 (ppt)—seawater is 36 ppt—their well-being depends on the timing, location and quantity of the freshwater flow from the Everglades into the northeast corner of Florida Bay. A rise in the Everglades' crocodile population will be evidence that the U.S. government's efforts to restore the Everglades (the most ambitious ecological restoration that has ever been attempted anywhere) are paying off. In fact, it is the Army Corps of Engineers, the architect of the project, that is funding Mazzotti's crocodile work through the summer of 1995.
As he wades through gray water along the edge of Deer Key, an islet in Florida Bay, Mazzotti points to an eight-foot female less than 20 feet away. Slowly the beast rises in the water, her head and tail above the surface in what Mazzotti says is a territorial gesture. She sculls parallel to the beach, her eyes fixed on us. Mazzotti notes that, ferocious appearance to the contrary, she is a timid animal. In 1994, for instance, 14 out of 20 crocodile nests in Everglades National Park were built on isolated beaches that face unpeopled waters. American crocodiles are a far different beast from the Old World species, which does not fear humans and in fact considers them edible. A mother crocodile has a good memory, and she will abandon a nest site for years if she is pestered or if her eggs repeatedly fail to hatch.
Mazzotti binds what's left of his gray hair in a ponytail. He is 46 and as tan as a coconut. He says his interest in biology was inspired by his boyhood alter ego, Tarzan, and like the King of the Apes, he pretty much lives in a bathing suit—unless he is on a windless, mosquito-infested shoreline, in which case he leaves only his hands unprotected by layers of clothing. Mazzotti gestures constantly when he talks, and his voice still evokes the New York City suburbs, which is not uncommon in Florida. The son of a Long Island plumber, Mazzotti has, after a fashion, followed in his father's footsteps. He received a doctorate in ecology from Penn State in 1983 and has long been an authority on South Florida's wetlands. The region's 1,400 miles of canals, levees and dikes are a spectacular plumbing nightmare that only God could restore to free-flowing order.
Americans know there are alligators in Florida, but not even many Floridians suspect that crocodiles dwell in the swamp forests of their state. These estuarine swamps are the northernmost outpost of the American crocodile, Crocodylus acutus, a relic of the Mesozoic Era that is considered by many biologists to be a living dinosaur. (Ancient crocodilians were members of the group of giant reptiles called archosaurs, which included the fearsome tyrannosaur.) Sometime during the Ice Age, when sea levels were about 300 feet lower than they are today, the crocodile crossed the Florida Straits from Cuba and established a toehold on North America. It wasn't until 1822, though, that the American naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque guessed that the "sharp-nosed alligator" of Florida was actually a crocodile. Another 47 years passed before the first specimen was collected in the now defunct Miami River.
Crocodiles have never been common in Florida, but their numbers have increased in the past two decades. Mazzotti places the population at about 400, which is distributed among three main habitats: northeast Florida Bay; north Key Largo, where crocodiles nest on spoil banks adjacent to canals in Crocodile Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and get hit by cars on U.S. 1; and the cooling canals of the Florida Power & Light station at Turkey Point on southwest Biscayne Bay. They move freely among the three sites and have been found as far north as Fort Lauderdale on the east coast of the state and Sanibel Island on the west. The bayside berms of Miami Beach once hosted a thriving population of crocodiles, but now, except in the pages of Carl Hiaasen's mystery Tourist Season, in which a behemoth eats assorted vacationers, crocodiles have shifted south in Biscayne Bay.
Once hatched, the crocodiles head for nurseries in the remote mangrove-lined creeks and basins that drain the east Everglades. From mid-July to mid-August, Mazzotti checks crocodile nests, hoping to intercept hatchlings before they disperse among the mangroves. One afternoon he takes his 15-foot skiff into the Taylor River, a branch of Taylor Slough, the principal drainage of the east Everglades, which pours its freight into Little Madeira Bay. At full throttle Mazzotti races the boat toward a wall of trees. One minute he is headed for the cleft that identifies the river, and the next he is inside deep-green, mosquito-filled shade.
Half a mile upstream the river cuts a bank of marl, an ancient beach that supports a forest of West Indian hardwoods (mahogany, Jamaican dogwood, pigeon plum, sea grape) in an otherwise dense forest of mangroves. Crocodile chatter wafts from a trellis of mangrove roots that rises from the coffee-colored water.