Wading into Alligator Nests in Everglades National Park
Story and Photos by James Branaman
Buzzing a hundred feet over a sea of sawgrass, thunderheads crowd the horizon dumping ribbons of rain along the far edges of Everglades National Park. Biologist Mark Parry leans out the amphibious helicopter’s open door and points to what resembles a pile of hay in the middle of a small pond. “There’s our first nest," he says.
The pilot banks left and we swoop down in a spiraling motion, gently hesitating before plopping into the watery scene on a submerged prairie. Parry and I jump from the copter into thigh-high water, hot from the midday Florida sun. With blades still whirring above us, Parry hands me a wooden stick about four feet long and with a straight face delivers these simple instructions, “If a gator were to charge us, just bonk it on the nose.”
“Okay," I respond in a much too casual manner, "you're the professional."
Wading into a “gator hole” requires nerve. Granted, a helicopter landing nearby usually sends a momma gator searching for cover, sometimes they’re motherly instincts get the better of them and they return to protect their nests.
Parry is researching the viability of alligator nests and gathering data on how they are faring with changing conditions in the park. While everyone agrees Everglades restoration is a good thing, it has created some interesting problems in the alligator world. Everglades water management lowered water flows using locks and dams in the 1980’s and alligators adapted by building nests without fears of flooding. Now that flows are being increased to more traditional levels (at least pre-Army Corps. of Engineers levels) and climate change has triggered more powerful rainfall events, alligators must learn to build nests higher or their eggs will drown. You could say Parry is checking their homework.
As we wade into nests, often waist deep, Parry tries to spot the mama so we can keep an eye on her, occasionally pointing out a set of eyes or nostrils peeking out from a swath of sawgrass. Approaching the nest he looks for hatchlings, scooping them up into squirming, nipping, squeaky bundles. He looks them over, takes some quick measurements and lets them go. Luckily the little critters don’t have teeth yet, so no fingers are lost to the tiny peeping reptiles which seem fragile and more lizard-like than the rough, hulking brutes seen lazing along the waterways of South Florida.
If no hatchlings are visible, he carefully digs into the nest, which resembles a large mound more than a birds nest, and begins pulling eggs out to see if they have been submerged. Just like you and me, alligators breathe air, so a submerged egg leads to a drowned gator. He cracks a drowned egg revealing contents which resemble an omelet. It’s a sad scene but we soon find out the mama gator has still brought life to the Glades as tiny turtles begin popping out of the nest and diving into the water. The Florida red-bellied cooter has figured out that a 10ft. gator makes a good watchdog, so the female turtles lay their eggs inside the gator nest for protection from predators.
After checking each nest we take flight again, dodging thunderstorms and gaining a rare perspective of the vast wilderness. Looking down on clouds reflected in the water below, cypress trees and small palm islands break the mirrored scenery like the abstract splatter of a Jackson Pollock painting spreading out below us in every direction until it comes to an abrupt halt near the Miami skyline.
By the time we get to the last nest I’m exhausted from slogging in water-filled steel-toed boots, keeping camera gear high, yet head down low while hopping in and out of the puddle-jumping chopper. Parry notes this is a nest built by a young gator, seemingly abandoned and too low for the higher water flows. He pulls waterlogged eggs from the soggy nest and lines them up for a quick count. I expect the day will end on the down note of another baby gator omelet, but instead he says, “Hey, check it out!”
One of the little eggs writhes in his hands and small cracks slowly appear. Finally the tip of a little rough-edged snout pushes through ivory shell. Despite the water in the nest, it wasn’t enough to drown all the eggs and now others start hatching. They each break free and crawl to the edge of the nest. Plopping into the water, they quickly pop to the surface for their first swimming breath. With limbs outstretched like little olive paddles, their tiny tails propel them towards the safety of the sawgrass.