HOMESTEAD -- State wildlife officials are searching for a Nile crocodile that may have made its way into Biscayne Bay after Hurricane Isaac.
Officials had been trying to catch the crocodile for several months in the canals around Homestead, FWC Everglades Region Biologist Dennis Giardina said, but they haven't seen it since late August, when the dams into Biscayne Bay were opened as a flood control measure.
The failure is not for a lack of looking, he said. Shortly after the storm, a search crew entered the waters upstream and combed through the canals.
"It would have been a nice day for a croc to be out basking," Giardina said.
The crocodile, which Giardina estimated is four to five feet in length, is one of three Niles that wildlife officials suspect were either released or escaped from a Southwest Miami-Dade County breeding facility over the last year or so.
One of the crocs, a 3.8-foot female that weighed just under 10 pounds, was captured Oct. 27, 2011 in Redland Fruit Spice Park, records show.
Another crocodile was captured but then released, also in the Homestead/Redland area, Giardina said.
Florida is estimated to be home to 1,500 to 2,000 American crocodiles, which are native to the region. While it is extremely rare for an American crocodile to be aggressive toward people, the Nile, which is most commonly found in sub-Saharan Africa, is considered the most dangerous crocodile in the world.
Nile crocodiles are thought to be responsible for an average of more than 300 attacks per year on humans, according to the Crocodile Specialist Group, an international confederation of crocodilian conservationists.
Jorge Pino, a spokesman for FWC's Miami-Dade County law enforcement operations, said it's not illegal to import or breed Nile crocodiles in Florida, as long as the breeder obtains the proper permits. However, it is illegal to release the crocodiles into the wild or to improperly safeguard a captive crocodile facility.
"We are indeed in the midst of investigating a particular individual that we feel may have been responsible," he said of the Nile crocs that got loose. "I don't think it was a release. There could have been a violation of some of our rules pertaining to the proper caging environment."
Pino declined to identify the suspect, but added that investigators don't believe more than three Niles escaped.
In an email last week, University of Florida crocodilian expert Frank Mazzotti said it is "not impossible but not likely" for a Nile crocodile to interbreed with the more passive American version of the species.
If so, that's definitely good news to Giardina, who said that one of his concerns about having a Nile loose in Biscayne Bay is interbreeding.
"In my mind, one or two might not be a very big thing," he said. "But if it was dozens, I would be very much concerned with them hybridizing the American crocodile."
Giardina added that he's also concerned about the potential for aggressive behavior.
"It's disturbing that a very large animal that can and does attack and kill people in its native range somehow got in the canal system," he said of the Nile.