“Before I forget: don’t wear any underwear.”
That’s what my contact was telling me to prep me for my first helicopter ride.
“If the helicopter crashes, your flight suit will keep things from catching on fire, but it can get hot enough to melt the rubber in your waistband. It’d burn right through you. Slice you in half.”
Makes sense, I thought as a I hung up.
Wait — keep THINGS from catching on fire? Which things? Why were we talking about my underwear again?
I began to think that this was all a ploy to distract me from “if the helicopter crashes.” It wasn’t working, but alligators all of a sudden didn’t sound so scary. They could tear enormous chunks out of my flesh, but it’s not like they could slice me in half with burning rubber.
The trip was on behalf of a show I worked on in the 90s called Waterways, which was jointly funded by NOAA, the EPA, and the National Park Service via Everglades National Park. I handled all the shooting and post for the show, which aired weekly across Florida on PBS affiliates and government channels.
The goal for this trip was simple enough:
not die from alligators or melting rubber find alligator nests in parts of the Everglades that were being restored to a more natural state. One way to monitor the success of this effort was to monitor the communities of critters living in these areas. In our case, alligators. Specifically for this trip, our task was to count eggs inside the nest. Later, a team would return to see how many eggs had hatched, how many were lost to predators, and so on.
As we found alligator nests like the ones pictured above, the pontooned helicopter would “land” on the water, we’d drop into the water, and wade to the mound of dirt and sticks where the mother alligator had made her nest.
It’s not like these things are easy to find. The picture here of an alligator hole doesn’t even begin to suggest the challenges, starting with the size of the park: over 700 square miles is a lot of ground to cover, even by helicopter.
And as I noted re: the helicopter’s pontoons, the grass is growing in water, so any approach would require some wading.
In my case, the wading involved carrying 30 pounds of gear: a BetaSP camera and lens, microphones, and enough batteries and tapes that I was absolutely certain I wouldn’t need to wade back to the helicopter.
The challenge lying beneath all of these wasn’t just finding a nest in a nesting hole. It was finding an active nest, and the best way to tell if it was active was if an alligator was on it at the time we happened to be flying over.
I roll up to the ranger station, and there’s the helicopter. It was tiny, barely big enough for the four us: the pilot, the scientist, the show’s host-producer Kelly Everman of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary/NOAA, and me. It wasn’t scary at all. It was actually kind of adorable.
The thought of my underwear slicing me in half hadn’t crossed my mind in maybe three or four minutes — seriously, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, even though I’d already committed to freeballing for the day. When they handed me the flight suit and pointed me to the locker room, I was able to get the underwear part of the equation out of my mind and turn my full attention to the part about the helicopter crashing and bursting into flames.
I was able to get that out of my mind when, pleased as punch, they pointed to the helicopter to show me that it had no door. “We knew you’d want to get some aerial footage on the ride over, so we took the door off for you.” I had actually not thought any such thing. Once I saw that the door was off, I hadn’t planned on opening my eyes.
And instead of the harnesses they show on TV, all I had to secure (???) me was a seat belt. Just a belt, like on a plane. Or more precisely, a belt like the one that flight attendants hold in their hands while you ignore the safety briefing. Well, it’s not that I was ignoring the safety briefing I was getting before I got in the helicopter. It’s that I was trying not to think about it.
I should mention that I’m not at all afraid of flying. It’s safer than laying in bed or whatever. At this point though, I’m barely thinking about bursting into flames at all. I’m much more aware that I am in fact very afraid of falling out of helicopters with no doors….especially while the helicopter pilot is flying the thing leaned way, way over in my direction, so that I can record without getting any of the copter or the shadow of the blades in the shot. Very thoughtful, but not helping with the fear of falling out.
It took us long enough to find a nest that I was now afraid of running out of fuel and crashing. The good news is that, with no fuel left in the tank, we wouldn’t burst into flames.
Now, I have to give all the credit in the world to the pilot and researcher, who managed to find a gator on a nest deep in a tiny, dense grove on a tiny island. I still don’t know how they could see the gator or her nest through the trees. I should also mention that while none of the pictures in this article are from my actual trip, a number of them, including the one below, are quite representative indeed of what I saw.
Except in this case, I personally didn’t actually see the mother alligator on her nest. Because just as the helicopter set down on the water nearby, the pilot said she had just slithered into the water.
The water I was about to wade into.
With no underwear.
“Don’t worry,” I was told. “Move slowly and quietly, and you’ll be fine. She’s more interested in getting back to the nest, and you’re not actually a threat until you and she are there at the same time.” What? Are you kidding me? Isn’t the whole point of this trip to get to the nest we couldn’t find unless it had an alligator on it?
Fortunately, I wasn’t going first. The scientist was. However, when the leader of our little expedition stepped off the helicopter into the water, he stumbled and very nearly went under: The water was better than five feet deep! Better for the alligator than for us, perhaps. For me, it meant that I’d be carrying my 30 pound burden overhead while I tried to keep my feet under me, while not thinking about the alligator that might be lurking anywhere from my armpits down.
It wasn’t a long wade, and we got to the nest without incident. Once we did, our scientist brandished his metal clipboard. “I’m carrying the clipboard, you –” he said, pointing to me, “are carrying the camera, and you –” he said to Kelly, as he looked around on the ground, and picked up a three foot long stick to hand her, “are carrying the stick. If the mother shows back up, don’t hit her with it, but press it against the front of her snout and gennnntly move her aside.”
The long snout with all the teeth in it? The one that can snap its jaws with 300 pounds of pressure? That snout? Kelly didn’t look any more pleased about this than I felt, which was actually a relief. As far as I could tell, I had been the only one thinking that this was insane. Sure, researchers have been making these trips for years with not a single incident or accident, but the odds couldn’t stay in our favor forever, could they?
Getting to work was the sweetest relief of all. As I slipped into my role as location producer/cameraman, I now felt some kind of control over what was happening around me, and unlike Kelly, I wasn’t holding a stick just outside the shot. Once our guide began to speak, the trip’s details began to emerge.
“For decades, we’ve been diverting the natural flow of water through the Everglades to make room for development in South Florida and for flood control.
Now, as we’re starting to restore that historic flow, we have to make sure that it’s actually working to benefit the ecosystem. One of the ways that we can do that is to monitor the cycles of alligator eggs. Our expectation is that, as their habitat returns to its historic state, the alligator population should also return to its historic levels.
“This aspect of the monitoring is fairly simple. We count the eggs now, and come back later to count the empty shells. We’ll be able to tell how many hatched, and how many were lost to predators. We have some ideas about natural levels of predation as well, so as part of this same natural cycle we’re trying to restore, it’s important to track that too.
“The tricky part is that I have to take the eggs out of the nest, and put them back in precisely the same order that they are in the nest right now. That’s because the gender of the alligators is determined by the temperature of the eggs. The cutoff is around 90 degrees. Cooler than that, and the eggs hatch as females. Higher than that, they hatch as males, and we don’t want to interfere with that process.
“It also means that we’ll have to work quickly. It’s close to 100 degrees today, so we don’t want to expose the cooler eggs to these high temperatures any longer than we have to.
And indeed, he got to work quickly. He carefully set aside the rotting vegetation that the mother had placed to protect the eggs, and delicately set each of the eggs aside as he made notes about their locations.
“The shells aren’t hard, like you see in birds,” he said. “They’re leathery. You can actually feel the babies breathing inside the egg.”
Remarkably enough, I was even able to capture that on camera: you could clearly see the egg in his hand gently contracting and expanding as the alligator breathed.
Then Kelly noticed that they guy was sweating bullets. I’m not kidding. They were shooting off him into the air, like some kind of cartoon character. “Sure is hard work putting them back in the nest the right way, isn’t it?” she asked.
There was a long pause before he quietly cleared his throat. “It’s not that,” he said, nervously glancing over his shoulder. “I’m not the alligator guy. The alligator guy is out sick today, and I have to be honest, I’m terrified that the alligator might come back any second.”
“Yeah, I’m the bird guy. They sent me because they figured I wouldn’t break the eggs. I don’t actually have too much experience with this.”
I couldn’t take it. I piped up,”You don’t have MUCH experience with this, or ANY experience with this?” Clears throat. “No, not really.” Clears throat again. “No. I’ve never done this before. No.”
He was staring straight as his work while he said this, maybe as much out of embarrassment as concentration, so it was easy enough for me to edit in natural sound from another part of the trip when I got back to the studio. I certainly didn’t want to embarrass the guy any more than he already was, which is also why I’m not mentioning his name here. He was a total pro, but I suspect that his memory of the morning isn’t quite as amused as mine.
By this point, I was trying not to laugh. Not at him. At all of it. Scientists do this kind of thing every day, surely without the freakish amounts of adrenaline screaming through me that were making it hard for me to hold the camera steady. But I was already writing this story in my head, even if it took me 15 years to actually write it.
Eggs carefully returned to the nest, we waded back into the water. Up to our armpits again, we hear the pilot yell from the helicopter, “She’s coming back! She’s coming back! And she’s headed straight for you!”
Yeah, we sped up a little, but there was only so fast we could wade. And hey, she was behind us, not between us and our ride out of here. Climbing in, I realized that just by getting this far, our odds of crashing in a ball of fire had already been cut in half. Maybe we’d get back home after all. Even more important to me, I knew that we’d nailed the shoot, and that we’d totally stick the landing on the story, and we did.
Things I’ve done since then:
- Remembered that you can work well outside your comfort zone by focusing on the task at hand, and applying the experience you do have.
Things I haven’t done since then:
- Waded up to my armpits in alligators.
- Worn underwear. You can’t be too careful about being sliced in half by burning rubber.
For some meager evidence that I’m not making this up, see the US Geological Survey page, American Alligator Ecology and Monitoring for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, as well as the National Park Service page, American Alligator: In Depth.
And to answer a question I’ve gotten a number of times as I’ve told this story over the years, the primary difference between an alligator and a crocodile is that nobody gets in the water with crocodiles.