The crocodile is a rare sighting in Southwest Florida. Extremely vulnerable to cold temperatures, it seldom ranges as far north as Lee County, with the vast majority of the region's sparse population living along the southern coastal edge of Collier County, predominantly in the Ten Thousand Islands and Everglades National Park. Because this region represents the northern edge of its range, the Florida croc seldom grows as large as those found farther south. In South America there have been official reports of 20-foot crocs. The longest croc skull ever measured was 28.6 inches (72.6 cm) and came from a mature male estimated to be at least 22 feet long. That animal would have weighed more than 3,000 pounds. A crocodile this size could eat a horse. Whole.
Sadly, because of over-harvesting and hunting, the American crocodile is in trouble throughout its range. Venezuela banned the taking of crocodiles in 1972. Other nations such as Costa Rica and Cuba have followed suit, and in these locales the croc is making a slow but steady recovery from the brink of extinction.
Ironically, a major reason for the recovery of the American crocodile in Florida, where its numbers are now estimated at more than 1,500, is the nuclear power plant at Turkey Point, built in 1972 south of Miami near Homestead. The power plant encompasses some 3,300 acres of wetlands through which a series of canals were dug to assist in cooling the water used to keep the reactor core from overheating. Shortly thereafter, a handful of American crocodiles discovered these canals, which teemed with fish that thrived in the artificially warmed waters.
The Sanibel crocodile.
Like the endangered manatee that frequents the Florida Power and Light plant in North Fort Myers at Manatee Park, the Florida croc has found a safe haven at Turkey Point. The power plant has become the primary recovery engine for the entire Florida population, helping to upgrade the status of this impressive animal from endangered to threatened in 2007.
Despite its size, the crocodile is far less aggressive than the alligator toward humans. Aside from an injured croc named Zulu that killed the man who shot him in 1925 on the outskirts of Miami, there has never been a confirmed attack by any crocodile in the U.S., though there have been several fatal attacks reported in Mexico and Central America. You should never approach a crocodile in the wild. If its nest is anywhere near, the female crocodile will kill in defense of its eggs. The croc, like the alligator, is capable of explosive charges that occur almost faster than the human eye can follow. In the water the croc can obtain speeds of 20 miles per hour and is capable of launching its 2,000-pound body completely out of the water with its powerful tail.
Authors note: Within a few years of losing Sanibel's resident crocodile, Florida Fish and Wildlife brought a young crocodile onto the island in 2010. While no one is certain, the recent sighting of a nine-foot crocodile in the Dunes, may or may not be the same animal. Charlotte Harbor, because of their intolerance of cold, is considered by many herpetologists, to be the northern edge of their range along the West Coast of Florida.
This is an excerpt from Living Sanibel - A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry's and your favorite online sites.