“Before I forget: don’t wear any underwear.”
COW Library : Field Production : Tim Wilson : “Before I forget: don’t wear any underwear.”
"Before I forget: don't wear any underwear."
That's what my contact was telling me to prep me for my first helicopter ride.
"If the helicopter crashes, your flight suit will keep things from catching on fire, but it can get hot enough to melt the rubber in your waistband. It'd burn right through you. Slice you in half."
Makes sense, I thought as I hung up.
Wait – keep THINGS from catching on fire? Which things? And remind me – why were we talking about my underwear?
I began to think that this was all a ploy to distract me from "if the helicopter crashes." It wasn't working, but alligators all of a sudden didn't sound so scary. They could tear enormous chunks out of my flesh, but it's not like they could slice me in half with burning rubber.
The trip was on behalf of a show I worked on in the 90s called Waterways, which was jointly funded by NOAA, the EPA, and the National Park Service via Everglades National Park. I handled all the shooting and post for the show, which aired weekly across Florida and Georgia on PBS affiliates and government channels.
The goal for this trip was simple enough:
I roll up to the ranger station, and there's the helicopter. It was tiny, barely big enough for the four us: the pilot, the scientist, the show's host-producer Kelly Everman of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary/NOAA, and me. It was actually kind of adorable. The thought of my underwear slicing me in half hadn't crossed my mind in maybe three or four minutes.
Actually, I hadn't stopped thinking about it until they handed me the flight suit and pointed me to the locker room. I was finally able to get being sliced in half by burning underwear out of my mind and turn my full attention to the part about the helicopter crashing and bursting into flames.
Feeling vulnerable in my freeballing state but comforted knowing that I wouldn't be sliced in half by burning underwear, I walked up to the helicopter and noticed that it had no doors. Pleased as punch, they told me, "We knew you'd want to get some aerial footage on the ride over, so we took the door off for you." I had actually not thought any such thing. Once I saw that there no doors, I hadn't planned on opening my eyes.
I should mention that I'm not at all afraid of flying. It's safer than lying in bed or whatever. I am, in fact, very afraid of falling out of helicopters with no doors, and, I am chagrined to discover, terrified of being sliced in half by burning underwear.
It turns out that finding alligator nests is really hard, even in a helicopter. The pictures below of alligator holes don't even begin to suggest the challenges, starting with the size of the park: over 700 square miles is a lot of ground to cover, even by helicopter. And part of the goal of alligators building nests where they do is to stay out of sight.
It also turns out that the best way to find alligator nests is to find alligators sitting in them. This still sounded pretty awesome. We're going to look for alligators!
As you can see from the pictures above, that even though the area is covered with grass, the grass is growing out of water 3-5 feet deep in that part of the Everglades, which is where it comes by its name, "The River of Grass." The helicopter had pontoons, the pilot explained, so that he could set us in the water and we could wade onto the nests.
Wait a minute.
Nobody had said anything about wading. For me, that meant carrying 30 pounds of gear over my head so it wouldn't get wet: a BetaSP camera and zoom lens, microphones, and enough batteries and tapes that I was absolutely certain I wouldn't need to wade back to the helicopter. Then again, I'd had to carry that gear for a mile or more into the woods on other trips. A short wade wouldn't be that bad.
There was yet another challenge for our trip. We didn't need just any alligator nesting hole. We needed an active one, and the best way to tell if it was active was if an alligator was on it at the time we happened to be flying over.
It was taking long enough to find an active nest that I was now thinking about the helicopter running out of fuel and crashing. The good news: with no fuel left in the tank, we wouldn't burst into flames.
Now, I have to give all the credit in the world to the pilot and researcher, who managed to find a gator on a nest deep in a tiny, dense grove on a tiny island. I still don't know how they could see the gator or her nest through the trees. I should also mention that while none of the pictures in this article are from my actual trip, a number of them, including the one below, are quite representative indeed of what I saw.
The water I was about to wade into.
With no underwear.
"Don't worry," I was told. "Move slowly and quietly, and you'll be fine. She's more interested in getting back to the nest, and you're not actually a threat until you and she are there at the same time." What? Are you kidding me? Isn't the whole point of this trip to get to the nest we couldn't find unless it had an alligator on it?
Fortunately, I wasn't going first. The scientist was. However, when the leader of our little expedition stepped off the helicopter into the water, he stumbled and very nearly went under: The water was better than five feet deep! Better for the alligator than for us, perhaps. For me, it meant that I'd be carrying my 30 pound burden overhead while I tried to keep my feet under me, while not thinking about the alligator that might be lurking anywhere from my armpits down.
It wasn't a long wade, and we got to the nest without incident. Once we did, our scientist brandished his metal clipboard. "I'm carrying the clipboard, you –" he said, pointing to me, "are carrying the camera, and you –" he said to Kelly, as he looked around on the ground, and picked up a three foot long stick to hand her, "are carrying the stick. If the mother shows back up, don't hit her with it, but press it against the front of her snout and gennnntly move her aside."
The long snout with all the teeth in it? The one that can snap its jaws with 300 pounds of pressure? That snout? Kelly didn't look any more pleased about this than I felt, which was actually a relief. As far as I could tell, I had been the only one thinking that this was insane. Sure, researchers have been making these trips for years with not a single incident or accident, but the odds couldn't stay in our favor forever, could they?
Once our guide began to speak, the trip's details began to emerge. "For decades, we've been diverting the natural flow of water through the Everglades to make room for development in South Florida and for flood control," he said. "As we're starting to restore that historic flow, we have to make sure that it's actually working to benefit the ecosystem. One of the ways that we can do that is to monitor the cycles of alligator eggs. Our expectation is that, as their habitat returns to its historic state, the alligator population should also return to its historic levels.
"This aspect of the monitoring is fairly simple. We count the eggs now, and come back later to count the empty shells. We'll be able to tell how many hatched, and how many were lost to predators. We have some ideas about natural levels of predation as well, so as part of this same natural cycle we're trying to restore, it's important to track that too.
"The tricky part is that I have to take the eggs out of the nest, and put them back in precisely the same order that they are in the nest right now. That's because the gender of the alligators is determined by the temperature of the eggs. The cutoff is around 90 degrees. Cooler than that, and the eggs hatch as females. Higher than that, they hatch as males, and we don't want to interfere with that process.
"It also means that we'll have to work quickly. It's close to 100 degrees today, so we don't want to expose the cooler eggs to these high temperatures any longer than we have to."
And indeed, he got to work quickly. He carefully set aside the rotting vegetation that the mother had placed to protect the eggs, and delicately set each of the eggs aside as he made notes about their locations.
Chuck Cook, New Orleans Times-Picayune
Remarkably enough, I was even able to capture that on camera: you could clearly see the egg in his hand gently contracting and expanding as the alligator breathed.
Then Kelly noticed that they guy was sweating bullets. I'm not kidding. Beads of sweat were shooting off him into the air, like some kind of cartoon character. "Sure is hard work putting them back in the nest the right way, isn't it?" she asked.
There was a long pause before he quietly cleared his throat. "It's not that," he said, nervously glancing over his shoulder. "I'm not the alligator guy. The alligator guy is out sick today, and I have to be honest, I'm terrified that the alligator might come back any second."
"Yeah, I'm the bird guy. They sent me because they figured I wouldn't break the eggs. I don't actually have too much experience with this."
I couldn't take it. I piped up,"You don't have MUCH experience with this, or ANY experience with this?"
He cleared his throat. "No, not really." He cleared his throat again. "No. I've never done this before. No."
He was staring straight as his work while he said this, maybe as much out of embarrassment as concentration, so it was easy enough for me to edit in natural sound from another part of the trip when I got back to the studio. I certainly didn't want to embarrass the guy any more than he already was, which is also why I'm not mentioning his name here. He was a total pro, but I suspect that his memory of the morning isn't quite as amused as mine.
By this point, I was trying not to laugh. Not at him. At all of it. Scientists do this kind of thing every day, surely without the freakish amounts of adrenaline screaming through me that were making it hard for me to hold the camera steady. But I was already writing this story in my head while this happening, even if it took me 15 years to actually write it down.
Eggs carefully returned to the nest, we waded back into the water. Up to our armpits again, we hear the pilot yell from the helicopter, "She's coming back! She's coming back! And she's headed straight for you!"
Yeah, we sped up a little, but there was only so fast we could wade. And hey, she was behind us, not between us and our ride out of here. Climbing in, I realized that just by getting this far, our odds of crashing in a ball of fire had already been cut in half. Maybe we'd get back home after all. Even more important to me, I knew that we'd nailed the shoot, and that we'd totally stick the landing on the story, and we did.
Things I've done since then:
Courtesy US Geological Survey
And to answer a question I've gotten a number of times as I've told this story over the years, the primary difference between an alligator and a crocodile is that nobody gets in the water with crocodiles.