Americana: That ain’t a gator! 01

An American Crocodile in Flamingo, Florida.

As Jeff and I flew the red eye with our two oldest grandchildren, we made a bucket list.

This would be my fifth trip to Florida, and I wanted to finally see an American Crocodile. I’d seen dozens of alligators in the wild, but never the elusive crocodile.

Part of the reason is that in the U.S., they only live on the southern-most tip of Florida and occasionally down on the Keys. Since they prefer salt water, they are never inland and don’t inhabit fresh water lakes or streams like the Everglades.

Another reason for my ill luck in the crocodile area is that we visit Florida when it’s hot and crocodiles, like their close cousins the alligators, hunker in the shade in the heat of the day. Nevertheless, we planned a whole day, including a picnic lunch, exploring the Flamingo area of the Everglades.

The forecast of mid-90s proved true. We walked some boardwalk nature walks slathered in sun screen and deet-heavy mosquito repellent. We saw dozens of lizards, gigantic grasshoppers, several varieties of shore birds, non-venomous yellow rat snakes and venomous cotton mouth snakes.

The large sign declaring the visitors’ center at Flamingo closed for repairs — since Hurricane Irma in 2017 — seemed like a bad omen. The marina was quiet, with only a few fishing boats gliding toward the slippery ramps where their trailers awaited. The brackish water is tinted brown from steeping like tea in the herbal swamps and mangrove thickets.

My grandson Michael prides himself on his talent for spotting wildlife.

“Look at that manatee!” he cried, pointing into the middle of the marina.

Sure enough, the sea cow pushed her docile nose above the water, gave us a glimpse of her rounded back, bobbed for a little while in slow motion and calmly sank out of sight. Sighting a manatee was on our grandsons’ bucket list, so they were elated.

I reminded the boys to keep drinking water as the noon-day sun leached the energy from our muscles. We asked a ranger at the temporary visitor’s center where to go for the best chance of spotting crocodiles.

“They often come up and sun themselves on the boat ramp. But it’s so hot today, they’ll be hiding in the shade,” he said.

We decided to eat our lunch beside the boat ramp. We chatted with a couple from Munich, Germany, as we enjoyed our cold drinks and turkey sandwiches. Soon, a small boat puttered up the ramp. Our grandson, Christopher, asked the young man and woman on the boat if they’d seen any crocodiles.

“Funny you should ask,” the woman answered. “We’re here from the University of Florida studying the American Crocodile. We were just up this estuary counting nests.”

“How many did you see?” I asked.

“We can’t tell you where they are because we’re trying to help the crocodiles get off the threatened species list, but we counted seven nests. We didn’t see any of the crocodiles. On a hot day like this, they hide in the shade,” she said.

My hopes plummeted. If even the experts found no crocs in their own homes, what hope did a few raw tourists have of seeing the elusive beast?

Jeff wandered over to the edge of the bank, watching the fish. I gathered up orange peels and empty baggies, disappointed.

Jeff was suddenly animated, pointing and gesturing for us to come. Not more than 8 feet off the concrete bank, a young 7-foot-long juvenile American Crocodile basked on the mangrove roots.

Crocodiles have their eyes, nostrils and ears on the top of their heads. Their eyes are flatter on their faces than an alligator and lower teeth jut outside their lips. They are medium gray and have the rough, bumpy hide like an alligator. They can grow to 12 feet long.

The creature watched us through sultry eyes, probably sizing up my grandsons. Crocodiles are not fussy eaters.

The boys flagged over a tour boat heading upstream. It steered closer and the tourists waved and thanked the kids.

Once the tour boat passed, the star attraction pushed himself back into the brown water out of sight as though he’d finished his tourism shift. I felt blessed to have met such a rare American sight.

Only in America, God bless it.

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