FOR AN HOUR THE MOTHER has been toiling through the tall grass searching for her newborns. The tropical night is sweltering. A lazy breeze off the Atlantic gives no relief. In a small clearing, the mother halts, surveys the landscape, changes direction. She is focused on a hump of earth overgrown with weeds.
She's forgotten where she buried them back in April. After two months of rain and erosion and the powerful ocean winds, the contours of the terrain have changed, confusing her.
But this hump seems promising. She climbs atop it, pressing her belly flat against the earth. This feels right. This, she believes, is the spot.
She gathers herself, lifts her body off the ground, fully extended as if attempting a push-up. She holds that position, then lets go, dropping all her weight against the earth. A thump echoes across the surrounding waters.
She waits a moment, then presses her jaw to the ground to listen for their cries below the surface.
A breeze flitters in the leaves of the Brazilian pepper, frogs screech, out in the darkness two owls compete with whoops and howls, and there's the endless slosh of water against the bank. But through all the night clamor she detects their voices inside the earth, their distinctive cheeps, their throaty squeaks. It's them, her offspring.
She begins to dig in the sandy soil, a few inches, a few more, clawing precisely until she exposes them to the hot night air. Two of them have already squirmed out of their shells. Ten inches long. Black and tan with gold bands. Eyes green and liquid. Immediately mosquitoes and other night bugs circle, land, and begin to track up and down their length.
All this, the unfolding drama of the American crocodile locating her hatchlings, is lit by the video camera's spotlight, which Cameron Prince operates from the bow of the airboat fifteen yards away. Onshore, crouched in the shadows only a few feet from the crocodile nest, is Leslie Levine.
Leslie shouldn't be on land so close to the nest. It's risky at a moment like this, but it happens from time to time and there's nothing to do but tough it out. A minute ago, she ducked ashore to search for drag marks, the distinctive trails crocs leave as they haul themselves across the sandy banks. Seconds after she'd climbed the slippery berm, the mother croc surfaced in the canal, swam to the bank, and trundled up the steep edge.
Cameron called a warning but Leslie raised both palms to tell him to hold steady. No worries. All she had to do was hang back, be still, watch. Sure, it was dicey, but nothing she hadn't handled dozens of times before.
Now in silence she and Cameron watch the scene unfold. The glare of the spotlight doesn't alarm the croc. With such a dominant sense of smell and keen hearing the creature relies little on sight. As long as she and Cameron are quiet, the mother will go about her business oblivious to their presence.
This is a big one, twelve feet, almost half a ton, but she digs into the mound with delicate strokes, pushing aside the mud and marl without harming the fragile shells. An amazing creature: covered in bony plates, with jaws so strong it can crush cast iron, so hardy and resilient it can survive the loss of a leg or its entire tail, yet it's capable of such deftness.
In the bright camera light, Leslie smiles. For years she's been watching scenes like this unfold, hundreds of them, but she's still as stoked as the first time. The American croc laying its eggs months before, then tracking down the right mound, doing her belly flop to see if there's anything alive inside, anything worth digging for. When she hears their cries, she begins the careful excavation, followed by the swim to a nearby freshwater source to safely deposit her offspring. A thousand times she's seen it, maybe more.
Oh, if she wanted to, she could drag out her notebooks, tally up the other nights like this, get the exact total. Everything was in her spiral notebooks. All penned in neat script just minutes after each event. Later on tonight, she'll dock the airboat at the lab and take an hour or two to transfer the data into the computer and fill out the spreadsheets. Every croc they encounter will be identified, sexed, weighed, injected with a microchip, its activities listed with signs of health or battle scars, the GPS coordinates of its active nest, number of hatchlings, and all identifying markings on the mother crocs.
The two of them watch the mother finish opening the nest, revealing it to the camera's light. After a moment's inspection, the big female plucks two hatchlings from the nest, holding them lightly between her jagged teeth.
Next she will turn and crawl back down the bank, slide into the water to begin her swim across the canal to a freshwater pond she discovered earlier. That small, rain-filled pond was Leslie's creation. A month ago it didn't exist. But to be ready for hatching season, Levine requisitioned the plant's maintenance team to use their amphibious backhoe to create the pit so the crocs in this part of the canal system would have a crucial freshwater supply.
Baby crocs needed six months to adjust to salt water. In the meantime they either found a freshwater source or died. Without that pond their only hope for survival would be to skim the shallow lens of rainwater riding atop the briny canals.
In half a year's time, the young crocs can abandon their rain-filled pond and begin to roam. Nature's orderly timetable: the six-month rainy season exactly matched the half year required for their salt-tolerant glands to develop.
Even though their freshwater source is ready, other challenges lie ahead. These two baby crocs have to learn some brutal survival skills: how to hunt and keep themselves cool in the relentless Florida summer, how to conceal themselves from predators, including adult crocs, who have no qualms about eating their young. And these young crocs will have to do it without coaching or protection, because after this one gesture of maternal instinct, the mother croc will abandon her babies to fend for themselves.
Leslie certainly identifies with that.
Hanging a few yards back, she tracks the croc to the bank. She's squinting in the harsh light, trying to make out the markings on this big croc's tail, the two or three missing scutes, those knobs of gristle she herself trimmed away years ago when this croc was a youngster, a code that will tell her where she first encountered this specimen. Most likely it's one of many Leslie has microchipped, but tonight at such a moment it's way too tricky to attempt to lasso the big girl and scan her chip for an update on her travels. At this point the normally shy croc is at her most protective and volatile.
Leslie is ten feet back, staying close because she wants to eyeball the coded cuts on the tail, which will tell her if the croc is one of the hundreds from this region of neatly organized canals, or from a smaller population in northern Key Largo, or perhaps it's one of the Everglades crocs that journey to this coastal, protected habitat to lay their eggs. Charting the croc's travels is a crucial part of the research project she's completing this year.
Leslie picks her way forward with particular care because earlier that afternoon, as they headed out to the nesting sites, a squall from tropical storm Ivan blew through, leaving the canal bank a gloppy mess. Even in her cleated hiking shoes the footing is treacherous.
She's wearing her usual uniform, dark jeans, long-sleeve T-shirt sprayed with mosquito repellent, and a small backpack. She's a lean, athletic woman, thirty-two, with short auburn hair. Despite her natural agility, the steep bank is giving her trouble. Twice she slips and barely catches herself.
She motions for Cameron to keep the camera's light on the trail before her. Maybe Cameron's finger slips on the spotlight trigger, or maybe it's some electronic glitch—whatever it is, at that critical moment the camcorder's three-watt video light flickers and goes dark.
Later a Miami-Dade police detective will question him about this detail, but Cameron will be unable to say exactly what happened. He won't remember his finger slipping. And he's sure there were no previous problems with the equipment. Since Cameron's recollection of the night is so foggy, the video record is crucial in establishing the timeline.
The last clear image is Leslie's urgent wave at Cameron to keep the light focused on the path. It's possible that move throws her off-balance, or maybe the toe of her hiking shoe snags a root, or perhaps she's simply disoriented by the utter dark beyond the cone of light.
From the camera's angle, there's no way to tell what tripped her. In the murkiness, Leslie appears to throw one arm upward, then the other, as if she's grabbing for the straps on a lurching subway. That's the final image of her before the camera pitches skyward.
After this moment, the video image joggles so wildly it's impossible to determine exactly what's what. The camera swings left, then tilts up, showing the black sky, some scattered stars, a slice of moon. Cameron reported he is at this point scrambling to unhook himself from the camera straps and fumbles the equipment, sending the camera crashing onto the deck. It bounces twice, then comes to rest.
The audio recorder continues to run, capturing a splash and a grunt.
Cameron calls Leslie's name. He sounds alarmed, but not panicked. He's worked alongside Leslie for years and has absolute faith in her skills.
But everything changes fast. With the mother croc in full-protection mode, Leslie's lurch is apparently read as aggression toward the hatchlings. The croc doesn't retreat across the canal as she normally would. From the heaves and grumbles, it appears that the big croc turns on the intruder.
Leslie remains silent, no sign of alarm. This puzzles the investigators who review the footage later, but Cameron assures them her familiarity with the landscape and with crocs in general was so thorough, it's doubtful that she was even concerned.
Maybe this self-assurance made Leslie vulnerable. She dropped her guard, didn't expect the croc to turn and surge so quickly. Cameron could make out only the dim outlines of the moment of attack. Leslie's headlong tumble, the big reptile's swift move. A violent merging of the two.
The audio records violent splashes as though the animal is trying to drag Leslie underwater or tow her as far from land as possible, with Leslie fighting, thrashing. There are garbled words and heaves of breath, while the frozen video continues to show only the still and shadowy image of the grassy bank where the nest is torn open, exposing the white cluster of eggs to a milky wash of moonlight.
More than a minute of quiet is followed by splashing, and a few seconds later, a howl. A human voice that is barely human.
It could be either of them. Cameron doesn't remember yelling but supposes it's possible. He doesn't recognize the scream as his own. To Cameron those moments were a bewildering blur. Shortly after the attack began, he recalls being chest-high in the canal and smacking the water with both hands to lure the big croc away from Leslie. Not heroic, he says, just a blind reaction to the horror unfolding before him. Then he remembers backing away when he thought the croc turned on him.
All that jostling of the water rocks the airboat and somehow triggers the camera's light to flutter on again.
More silence follows, then the sound of someone slogging through the canal, and a moment later Cameron is in the camera's frame staggering toward the bank in hip-deep water.
He's massive, tall and heavily muscled, with short blond hair. He's cradling something in his arms. His face is stricken and white. He claims to remember none of this. Picking it up, carrying it to the boat.
The video shows him splashing near the bow, then lifting the object and setting it on the deck in front of the camera. This human arm was severed an inch above the elbow. Around the wrist is a rubber bracelet, a camouflage design.
Cameron is huffing as he pulls himself aboard and lifts the video camera from the deck. For a moment the lens captures hundreds of glittering lights that outline the towers and the two enormous containment buildings at Turkey Point only a few hundred yards away. With all those lights sparkling in the night, the nuclear power plant appears almost festive.
Then the video goes dark.
Copyright © 2013 by James W. Hall