Kayaking with Crocodiles

Thalassophobia directly translates from the Greek to “fear of the sea,” but it can extend to fear of large bodies of water, fear of being too far from land, or fear of the vast emptiness of the ocean. But the definition that resonates the most with me is “the fear of what lies beneath.” I’m not afraid of the pool, I’ll stand in the ocean and let the waves crash into me up to my chin no problem, even if my head goes under I’m alright. I’ll gladly go out on a boat and enjoy myself. I’m not afraid of the water, I am afraid of what might be in the water.

On our last day in Everglades National Park we rented a kayak for a couple hours. Kate was super excited about it for the days leading up to it. I was less than psyched, but was doing my best not to steal her joy about it, with mixed results. We got to Flamingo Marina and we were called over by one of the crew of the big tour boat (which I looked at longingly, its passengers elevated high above the water, behind iron guard rails and in the hands of professionals.) Every morning they flush the engines with fresh water, and the manatee who hang out in the boat basin come to drink it up.

We got our closest look at these gentle giants yet, and though the parks service is all about conservation, the crew might keep the water flowing a little longer than necessary to keep the manatee around. Mostly just their faces pop out of the water to guzzle the water, which is more than the usual view of just their nostrils breaking through to breath in air. But as they slowly jostled for position like newborn puppies drinking milk, one of their tails broke through and we got a better feel for how big these guys really are.

When the water was shut off and the manatees floated away, we walked over to the boat launch. We were suited up in our life vests, handed our paddles, and off we went. Our only instructions were to stay 15 feet from all wildlife, and to hold onto the boat if we fell off. That second one seemed obvious and also the last thing I wanted to think about, but that 15 feet from wildlife seemed tricky to me. To explain why, I have to talk about the trees for a moment.

In the subtropical environment of the Everglades, mangrove trees dominate where salt water from the Florida Bay meets fresh water coming in from the land. White mangroves tend to grow a little inland from the shoreline, while black mangroves can go deeper into water as long as the salinity isn’t too high because they have these fingerlike roots which grow upward, stabilizing them and giving the roots access to air. The white mangrove is named after it flowers, while the black mangrove is named after its bark. The third type, the red mangrove, doesn’t mind the higher salt content and grows tendrils down off of every branch so they can extend out into the water from the shoreline. The red mangrove isn’t called red because of its bark, flowers, or even its roots. It is called red because of the tannins it leaches into the water, dying it an opaque tea. It makes the water reflect the sky, and floating through a mangrove forest can be very beautiful.

So, since the brackish waters of the Buttonwood Canal are lined with red mangroves, it’s impossible to see more than a few inches into the water. Dip an oar in and it disappears despite being dayglo red. So that makes it pretty difficult to be confident you are fifteen feet away from whatever is beside or below you. Which brings us to another unique feature of this place: The Everglades is the only place in the world where you can find the American alligator and the American crocodile sharing the same waters.

We’d seen a lot of alligators already, but right as we launched we got to experience a good close look at a crocodile. It was at least eight feet long, floating near the shore opposite the dock as if they lured him there for the tourists. It would be the first of four crocodiles we would see on our two hour trip, and not the largest.

That is a man who is happy and terrified at the same time, and his lovely wife who is having a blast. It’s funny, I wasn’t afraid of the crocodile because I could see the crocodile. Hell, one of the main reasons we were there was to see the crocodile. Sure, I would have preferred to see him from the shore, instead of coming into his house on some rented kayak that only cleared the water by a few inches, but it was thrilling to be floating there beside him. My anxieties weren’t kicked off by what I saw, but came from what I couldn’t see. The unknown is always the scariest thing.

The brown waters flowing beneath us were a vast unknown that my imagination could fill with shapeless threats and shadows from the collective unconscious. And as the wake of every passing motorboat rocked our tiny craft, I was reminded how easy it would be to break through that boundary from the world of light and air into the dark cold place below. I could hear the splash.

Then came all the secondary emotional nonsense drilled in by culture. The macho, “be a man” stuff that filters in regardless if we agree with it. I should be like Ron Swanson out here, fearlessly paddling my own canoe through the wilderness, or I should go home and turn my mustache in to the manhood authorities in shame.

It seems some heavy sighs snuck out of my stoic veneer and Kate reminded me I didn’t have to come next time. Not super helpful in that moment as we were already a few miles upriver. It took me a minute to process my stuff; I’m a dude so it’s easier to just be angry with everything, like why were we zigzagging around and not instantly prefect at tandem kayaking. But, I got it together and we talked it out. It’s so good to have a partner like Kate, and the simple act of expressing this all to her helped immensely, even before she talked me down a bit. The second leg of the trip was much more pleasant than the first half, and we would pause occasionally to just float and listen to the quiet of nature.

It’s perfectly reasonable to have some fear associated with kayaking through waters you know have crocodiles, alligators, water moccasins, and who knows what else. (Do candiru come this far North?) I did the thing anyway. It was an incredible adventure, a once in a lifetime experience, and I did have some fun doing it. And Kate’s right, I never have to do it again.

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