Sunday, December 2, 2012

Smiley

Nervously, the 6 tourists on the airboat scanned the pond in front of us, fringed as it was by the thick mangrove vegetation of the Florida Everglades. The sun shone bright and it was a cozy morning, despite this being the end of November, a luxury of being in the South. But we had a little something on our minds right then. We were on the lookout for the big 'un.
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An airboat is a very low, very flat bottomed and very fast boat with an enclosed aeroplane rotor tagged to its rear end, a machine designed for navigating the swampy shallow terrain of the 'Glades. Trouble was, our captain (pilot?) had killed the motor and we were lazily drifting along in the water. He didn't look like he wanted to get away quick just in case things got hairy.
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If things got... scaly would be a better word, I guess. For if you know of the Everglades, you know of their most infamous residents. We had already seen a momma alligator from a safe distance away basking on the banks and shielding her young ones, 20-25 of them. All of 7 feet in length, she was lethargic enough to provide ample photo opportunities, without giving us cause for worry, by moving towards us. But now we were in open water.
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As if on cue with a communal sixth sense, we turned around to check on the one place beyond our collective scanning eyes and sure enough, a member of a species which had stay unchanged in shape since the day of the dinosaurs was silently sneaking up on us. It was with a mix of fear and awe that we realized such a massive animal could swim perfectly soundlessly. With that peculiarly reptilian crawl often times seen on TV wildlife documentaries, he came cruising right alongside our boat.


At this point, all the 6 non-Floridans on the boat including yours truly shrank towards the centre of the vessel, instinctive self preservation, I guess. The captain was hardly re-assuring in his 'assurances'. Sitting high on his seat in the middle of the boat, the farthest away from the creature, he pronounced "That's Smiley. Almost 11 feet long. If he wanted to, he could leap clear of the water and land on my lap." Having a nickname for a huge alligator might earn our captain some brownie points in the regional macho-man competition but we were not eager to have some particular aspects of Smiley's physical abilities on display.
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11 feet is very much on the lower side of how big crocodilians can get, but 11 feet of scales, teeth and muscle circling our boat with an interested eye was alligator plenty for me. At about 450 menacing pounds in weight, and with 55-60 years of hunting experience (Fast fact: Alligators grow a foot a year for the 6 years of their life and from then on, their length increases only by an inch a year!), Smiley wasn't quite ideal company to have when out boating. A swamp creature of my nightmares was now within biting distance of me and there was no telling what was going on in the pea-shaped brain of his as he evaluated our boat and its passengers.
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We joked and laughed about dangling fingers in front of Smiley and about this being a especially bad place to fall into the water, for the most part, to stifle that queasy feeling generated when a large predator is encircling you quite casually, in his own domain. This was the cliched tourist experience we had come for, wasn't it? The whole "Been to the 'Glades, seen a gator" photo-op deal to boast about when we got back home. Only for that pesky voice inside to pipe up and say that is a real big ALLIGATOR and that we were on WATER and if he wanted to, there really was NOTHING stopping Smiley from making that humans equal to easy meat connection.
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It's been centuries since we have moved out of the food chain which sustains the rest of the natural world. We have devised our own fancy but safe ways of obtaining food for ourselves. A little reminder once in a while does help a lot to appreciate this privilege. Out there in the REAL real world, we are not at the top of the chain. No. Most definitely not.
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