02 January 2012
The Natural Coast
by Jack Rudloe,
(Excerpted from "The Wilderness Coast")
Years ago we were writing an article for Reader's Digest books on the
Everglades National Park, and a park ranger named Tom Goldbin took us out
into the remote mangroves of Florida Bay in his patrol boat, so that we
might chance to see an American Crocodile, which was on my life list. The
ranger provided an official uniformed presence in the park. He prevented
people from hiking into the interior of the mangrove islands where the birds
nested, and he patrolled looking for net fishermen. A newly passed law made
it strictly illegal to fish with gill nets in the park, making commercial
fishermen furious. One of them was an old man named Sarge, who knew more
about the bay and fishing than any human alive.
As we approached Sarge, Tom chuckled, "Sometimes he's glad to see me because
he's broken down. I can't tell you all the times I've had to tow him in. He
keeps running that old motor."
We pulled up to the bony weathered old man, who had several days' growth of
gray beard. He had a sun bleached cap, once khaki colored, that read, "I'D
RATHER BE FISHING. "Ain't nothing biting," he said and held up one trout. "I
been fishing all morning and this is all I caught. It's too doggone windy."
When Tom introduced us, and said we were writing an article, he looked at us
curiously. "This place ain't overfished like some say; they just ain't no
fish here." He gloried in the opportunity to protest the U.S. Fish and
"They got all the best fishing spots closed for them damn crocodiles. Little
Madeira Bay, Taylor Run, Mud Creek, and Davis Creek are where you catch the
big redfish and snapper, but this man'll arrest you if you go in there."
"You see many crocodiles?" Anne asked, trying to defuse his vendetta.
"No, hardly ever see one. Mostly there's 'gators out here, big ones."
"Tell them about your run in with the 'gator, Sarge," the ranger suggested.
Sarge lifted his salt-stained, worn khaki shirt and revealed a line of white
scars running down his back and arms. "Weren't nothing to it, really. I
hooked this big redfish and the 'gator wanted him and I wanted him. So when
he grabbed the fish and started to come into the boat with me, I used my
He reached down and showed me his big wooden club.
"Only the 'gator did all the convincing," Tom laughed. "It was a good thing
for Sarge we just happened by afterward, or he would have bled to death out
there. We had to rush him to the hospital."
We said good-bye to Sarge and continued on, exploring the upper reaches of
Florida Bay hoping to get a glimpse of a crocodile. We covered Joe Bay,
Little Madeira Bay, and Davis Creek, where they were supposed to be, but
nowhere did we even see a sign of one.
Once we saw a "'gator slide," where the big reptiles came out to sun,
squashing down the vegetation beneath it. It looked like a well-traveled
path. We crept along the shoreline, noting the yellow lichens on the
mangroves and extensive spiderwebs.
We continued looking, but to no avail. At last we entered a narrow creek
that cut through the mangroves with a heavy cable held afloat by large white
corks blocking the entrance. A government warning sign said to keep out.
"This is Mud Creek; it's the last possible place to see one," the ranger
said. "In the nesting season, not even biologists are allowed to go in."
Anne, my wife and co-author, lifted the cable. We moved into a secluded
world of palm trees rising up behind dense waxy-leafed mangroves. It was
shallow, and the propeller kicked up white mud and leaves. Still no
crocodile. Signs were hopeful: fresh flattened grass, and saltwort where
something big had lain.
"There's an old crocodile nest up on the left. Let's get out and take a
A bank slide had been made, worn down to the bare white marled earth, where
the mother crocodile had attended her nest. They build their nests above the
high water, on whatever dry land they can find. And here among the saltworts
was just enough elevation to prevent the eggs from being soaked by anything
short of a hurricane.
It was a simple nest, not the elaborate elevated pile of vegetation that an
alligator puts down but a hole dredged out in the high mangroves. "This used
to be much higher," the ranger said, pointing to the bank. "It eroded over
the past year."
We stood there looking, glancing behind us at the dredged-out trail that led
down to the bank of the creek, feeling as if we were violating the
crocodile's privacy by entering the world of that harried animal that had
been so relentlessly hunted for its hide, or often just shot for the "sport"
of it. Yet we were drawn on by curiosity, and to a degree our fascination
We could feel crocodile everywhere in the dark canopied air. It was all
about us in the swamp, that stealthy, eerie feeling that gnaws at the
imagination. What atavistic memory instinctively distrusted and feared
swamps? Was it because we are descended from a race of anthropoids that
lived in trees or in the hills and knew that evil dangerous reptile-type
creatures with cold green eyes, scaly hides, and teeth lurked at the river's
edge or water hole? Nowadays, with man dominating everything, the fears made
little sense, or did they?
After we looked at the worn-down nest, the ranger shook his head with
disappointment. "Well, folks, we tried. I'm afraid that's about as close as
we're going to get to a crocodile today. Maybe you can come back another
"It's better than nothing," Anne encouraged. "I've never seen a crocodile's
We walked back down the trail the mother crocodile had worn out. Then we
pushed off, started the boat, and moved slowly down the creek, churning up
mud and rotting leaves with the propeller.
Suddenly, the water before us gave a mighty swirl, and up it came, the great
monster of monsters. Its craggy pointed snout was encircled with white
fangs, its body the color of gray marl. It was huge, almost as long as the
boat, moving slowly, ominous and malevolent. There was no confusing this
hoary old water demon with the sluggish alligator. It surged ahead, its gray
jagged bumps rising above the water. The full length of its back emerged.
"That's the one," cried the ranger, "the old man of the swamp or I should
say the old lady."
He ran the boat slowly beside it. The creature boldly cruised ahead, on the
surface, with us gazing in astonishment on its immensity. No wonder the
ancient Olmecs of Mesoamerica depicted the world resting on the back of an
enormous crocodile in their art. We sat there speechless. This was as close
to a prehistoric saurian as anyone living today is likely to get. Perhaps
the species was becoming extinct, but that one surely seemed unaware of its
The great reptile seemed angry at our encroachment. With a booming splash,
it slammed down its craggy flat tail, sending a sheet of water cascading
into the boat, and it sank into the murky marl water and disappeared.
That was our crocodile. We returned home to finish our article, now knowing
there was no confusing it with an alligator. Anyone can tell the difference
by looking. The alligator is black, its head broad, its manner entirely
different. Commercial fishermen in Carrabelle and Panacea along Florida's
northern Gulf Coast had been telling me for years about seeing a crocodile
years ago, and I had never believed them. Our home coast is hundreds of
nautical miles from where a crocodile should by rights be. Yet one was
reportedly captured by fishermen two hundred miles out in the Gulf Stream.
There seemed to be no way such creatures would be able to survive the cold
winters of north Florida.
Later I went back and talked to some of the old-time gill-netters in the
Florida Panhandle who fished the offshore islands. Without exception they
all said, "About fifteen years, or ten years, ago you'd see one on Dog
Island, a big fellow. Couldn't get near him, though; he'd dive in and haul
ass. There ain't no mistaking him for a 'gator."
I had to agree.
Sadly I learned that a year after we saw the great crocodile it was found
dead, rotten and decomposed. Park authorities performed an autopsy on it and
found fragments of lead shot inside. Someone had blasted away its life.
Why, is the question. As long as people try to protect wild lands and set
them aside for endangered species, there will be conflicts. When the
Everglades was made into a national park, commercial fishermen were run out,
forced to move out of Flamingo. There were still hard feelings. When Florida
Bay was closed to net fishing, anger intensified. Although no one is coming
forward to say why he shot the crocodile, it probably has some connection to
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's edict. And the crocodile was a victim of
Yet mother nature has compensated. The great mother crocodile of them all is
gone, yet suddenly there has been a small population explosion of crocs.
They seem to be reproducing all over the park. Numbers of new smaller
crocodiles have been spotted in the habitats where the old ones were and
even in new areas. For the first time there is optimism that the crocodiles
and perhaps even wood storks may be coming back, and conservation measures
may pay off.