February 6, 2019

RON LACE/Contributed
Homeowners on a Lake Surprise canal had a real surprise to see a manatee and crocodile swimming together Saturday.

RON LACE/Contributed Homeowners on a Lake Surprise canal had a real surprise to see a manatee and crocodile swimming together Saturday.

KEY LARGO — Homeowners in the Sexton Cove neighborhood got to witness a rare wildlife encounter in their canal last Saturday when two unlikely friends seemed like old playmates.

An 8-foot manatee bumped and nudged a 10-foot American crocodile for nearly an hour, according to local resident Brenda Lace.

“We just experienced a once-in-a-lifetime event. All the neighbors have been talking about it,” Lace said. “The crocodile was lying in the canal and the manatee made a nose dive toward it and then eased around it a little bit.”

The manatee appeared to be bullying the croc, which never showed any aggression toward the marine mammal, according to Lace.

“At one point the manatee went under his forearm like he was going to nurse from it. It was quite an event. The manatee basically turned the croc around and redirected him,” Lace said.

The two were side by side for about 45 minutes. The docile crocodile just floated there, occasionally blinking.

“The manatee seemed like it was young, it didn’t have any scars and I didn’t want it to get any,” Lace said. “We didn’t know what the croc was going to do, but it’s like they had a relationship.”

The crocodile has been visiting the canal since last year, but Lace had never witnessed such an encounter between a croc and manatee during her 40 years of owning a home on the canal.

American crocodiles have been recovering in numbers after nearly going extinct in the 1970s, when fewer than 200 were known to exist. Today, there’s an estimated adult population around 2,500 in South Florida, which has resulted in the reptile’s downlisting from endangered to threatened.

Wildlife expert Joe Wasilewski has been working with American crocodiles for 30 years. He said it’s not unusual to see manatees and crocodiles in the same area since they prefer the same habitat.

“They both exist in the same habitat, so they run into each other frequently,” Wasilewski said. “Manatee isn’t a part of the croc’s diet.”

He couldn’t weigh-in on if the croc and manatee’s encounter was a playful one, since he didn’t see it. His experience in working with the reptilian predator and observing manatees is that the two usually leave each other alone.

“The croc may have been trying to thermoregulate itself,” Wasilewski said. Crocodiles, as cold-blooded animals, are more lethargic and seek warmth during the day as they are nocturnal creatures, he said.

“Regardless of if they were playing, it’s important to stay out of the water during evening hours. That’s when their activity really starts,” Wasilewski said.

He also advised to keep dogs from swimming at dusk.

“Even though there’s never been an authenticated attack on people, there’s no need to be in the water at night,” he said.