Crocodile cruises IOP beach
ISLE OF PALMS — Rip currents, jellyfish, stingrays, sharks — looking for one more excuse not to set foot in the surf?
An apparent American crocodile, at least a 6-footer, was pulled from the surf near the Isle of Palms pier Thursday after eluding trappers for weeks in a Mount Pleasant pond and being spotted swimming down the beach. It likely escaped or was released by someone who illegally brought it from its far southern Florida habitat, said Steve Bennett of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
But not necessarily so. The narrow-snouted beast with the flesh-ripping reputation might have swum up from the Everglades.
"It's not as ludicrous as you think. These are crocodile. They are not American alligators. These are saltwater animals," he said. Crocodile have been known to swim back and forth between the Florida Keys and Cuba. "Swimming a mile or two off the coast is nothing for a crocodile."
More than 500 afternoon beachgoers were frolicking in the surf when Isle of Palms police received a call about an alligator. It's not that unusual for an alligator to end up on the ocean side of a barrier island. But it is a freak show. A crowd already had swarmed, snapping away photos, when Sgt. James Ryan arrived, tracking the reptile as it moved.
"It's the same as when one turns up on the golf course — 'Guess what? You better let him play through, because he belongs there and you don't,' " Ryan said. "He'd pop his head up and look around. My impression was he was looking for some place to come ashore and when he saw the people, that wasn't going to happen."
Then Natural Resources agents turned up and identified it as a crocodile — paddling along toward the Charleston County park that is a magnet for bathers.
"As long as we had our eyes on that crocodile, we closed the area nearest to that location. When we lost sight of it we pulled everybody out," said Cynthia Wilson, the Isle of Palms park manager.
The bathers weren't uniformly cooperative. Bob Morgan, of Isle of Palms, was walking his poodle in the beach wash, wearing a straw hat, when the lifeguards began moving people out of the water as the reptile neared them, then police vehicles pulled up with sirens and lights flashing. Morgan didn't think it was all that dangerous ankle deep, even with the dog, he said.
Natural Resources agents asked that everybody get back behind the lifeguard stands. Ryan turned on the loudspeaker. Heads up, he told the onlookers, these things run fast and have sharp teeth. That had people stepping back.
The American crocodile is an evil-looking creature all right, with its lance of a snout, sort of a cross between an alligator and a gar. They do attack more aggressively than alligators. Wary homeowners off Marsh Grove Avenue in Mount Pleasant had watched the crocodile lunge for and grab an egret as it tried to fly away and saw it snatch a jumping mullet from mid-air.
But with a drainage pipe to hide away in, the crocodile had retreated from trappers for nearly a month after it slipped a snare on the first attempt to grab it. The crocodile is warier of humans than its alligator cousin; even in its Everglades range, people rarely spot the reptile in the wild.
"The same size animal (as an alligator) presents the same potential danger to people, which is minimal," said wildlife biologist Lindsey Hord, with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. But, "if it's a released pet, it's habituated to people. If it associates people with food, it may not be afraid."
The beachgoers burst into applause when Ronnie Russell, 17, of Gator Getter Consultants, snared the crocodile in chest-deep surf and pulled it to shore.
"Dude, it's the ocean. I think people over-reacted. There's tons of sharks, tons of animals. Are you surprised there's an animal in the ocean?" said Richie Young, 21, of Charleston, who watched the clamor.
"It never really created a ruckus. It was lethargic," said Ron Russell, Ronnie Russell's dad. "We've handled hundreds of alligator but we've never gotten a crocodile before. Ronnie's got one on his old man now."
Whether or not it swam north, this crocodilian isn't likely to be the start of a colony. American crocodiles have been pulled from ponds in Florence and in Savannah. But they don't survive well and won't breed in waters colder than that swampy strip of South Florida, where about 1,000 have made a home.
They are an endangered species, though, so the pier croc couldn't just be dispatched; it will get away with its life, turned over to an alligator park or released in a preserve in Florida, back where it belongs.
Jessica Johnson contributed to this report.
Reach Bo Petersen at 745-5852 or firstname.lastname@example.org.