Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Saturday, May 7, 2011
Reported crocodile attack draws interest

A Key Largo couple has attracted worldwide attention all this week from media outlets eager for them to relate a harrowing experience they, their doctor and a South Florida wildlife biologist have attributed to a crocodile attack.

"Inside Edition" passed through Key Largo on Tuesday with plans to interview Mike Gregory, he said. The unprecedented April 28 crocodile attack -- if that's what it was -- on him and Leigha Poulson also has been featured on television newscasts in Miami and written about in newspapers, tabloids and online forums, including the New York Daily News and the Daily Mail in England.

"I guess it's kind of cool being famous a little bit and making history a little bit," Gregory said.

What made the incident such a headline-grabber was the possible novelty of it: There never has been a recorded crocodile attack on a human in the history of the state. Unlike their cousins in Africa and Australia, the endangered American crocodile is a shy, reclusive and docile creature and "conflicts between crocodiles and humans are still very rare," according to a press release the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) released late Thursday to announce it is investigating the incident.

"With limited information at hand, the FWC cannot conclude what animal the kayakers encountered. ... The FWC cannot confirm what caused the kayak to overturn, but there are many animals and things found in water that can cause scratches and wounds to people," the press release says. "The FWC suspects this may have been a chance occurrence and not an overt act by whatever animal the kayakers may have encountered."

The couple was paddling in Florida Bay, just outside the canals of Sexton Cove near Mile Marker 106, when they said something flipped their kayaks and injured them in the water, but it was before dawn, so they didn't get a good look at whatever it was.

The clues point to a crocodile, some say.

"Everything I've heard is consistent that they canoed over an alligator or a crocodile, and this time of year it is more likely to be a crocodile than an alligator," said Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida wildlife biologist who specializes in both large reptiles.

Tavernier's Dr. Bernard Ginsberg, who later examined the couple, quickly concluded it was a reptilian attack. Mazzotti, who has viewed pictures of their wounds, agreed. What tips the balance toward crocodiles over alligators are the elements of time and place.

Crocodiles are more likely to be found in the waters near Sexton Cove, which sits in close proximity to the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge on North Key Largo. Alligators, which reside mostly in freshwater, can make their way into the salty environs of Florida Bay, but they are more likely to do so in the summer wet season, when runoff makes the bay's water a bit more palatable to them, Mazzotti said.

He said the couple's descriptions sound like a typical response from a startled crocodile or alligator. First, the beast would have risen up as it started to swim away, tipping the kayaks in the process. Then, it would have remained on alert once it saw people in the water.

"Their reflexive behavior is to swing their head and bite, snap and release," Mazzotti said. "And that's a defensive behavior and pretty much serves as a warning to anything in the area to get out of here or worse is coming."

The FWC press release says "wild animals instinctively flee from an unexpected or perceived threat or encounter with a human."

The couple said a frenzy ensued after the kayaks flipped.

"I was trying to swim back to the boat," said Poulson, 20, who lives in Islamorada. "I felt a nudge. When I got back in the boat, I was like, 'What was that?' I was halfway up the canal when it started to hurt."

Poulson had several scratches on her torso and a gash and heavy bruising under her thigh. Gregory, 23, of Key Largo, was bitten on his leg.

"The whole time this was happening we were in shock," he said. "I thought it was a manatee and I didn't know it was a crocodile until we got back there and saw the scratches on our legs."

The FWC said complaints about crocodiles have increased as the threatened species's population has grown, from fewer than 300 in 1975 to more than 1,500 adults today.

"Because crocodiles get large, people must use caution when near them or recreating in areas where they are found," the press release says.

It is unlikely the couple's incident will be recorded as a documented crocodile attack, Mazzotti said, since no one saw the offending creature and the bite marks are likely not extensive enough to differentiate between an alligator and crocodile.

The couple's marks indicate one or two teeth, but it would take a complete outline of the beast's jawline to be conclusive.

For his part, Gregory is drawing some positives from the attack. He said he's long been known to his friends as "croc" due to his penchant for catching -- with his bare hands -- everything from birds to sharks to smaller fish.

In fact, he dreams of having his own TV show, Steve Irwin-like, where he can use those skills.

The attack, he said, was a fluke that shouldn't keep him or others off the water. Then again, it might have been payback from all those creatures he's gotten the best of with those bare hands of his.

"My friends are saying it's karma," Gregory said.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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