Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
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Probable crocodile attack drawing interest

KEY LARGO -- A probable, and possibly unprecedented, crocodile attack off Key Largo last week is attracting worldwide attention.

Inside Edition planned to pass through Key Largo on Tuesday to interview victim Mike Gregory, he said. And the attack on Gregory, as well as co-victim Leigha Poulson, has also been featured on television newscasts in Miami and written about in newspapers, tabloids and online forums, including the Daily Mail in England and the New York Daily News.

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

What's making this attack such a headline grabber is the possible novelty of it. Unlike their cousins in Africa and Australia, the endangered American crocodile is a docile creature. Its numbers in Florida are also small -- estimated at several hundred to 2,000, according to various sources. In fact, there has never been a recorded crocodile attack on a human in the history of the state.

It's not certain that it was a crocodile that attacked Gregory and Poulson either. They didn't get a good look at their assailant while paddling during the starlit wee hours on April 28. But the clues point that way.

"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 those large reptiles.

According to Gregory and Poulson, they were taking a leisurely paddle in Florida Bay, just outside the canals of Sexton Cove near mile marker 106, when their kayaks got flipped over. A frenzy ensued.

"I was trying to swim back to the boat," said, Poulson, 20, who lives 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 sustained several scratches on her torso as well as a gash and heavy bruising under her thigh. Gregory, 23, of Key Largo, sustained a bite 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."

Tavernier physician Bernard Ginsberg, who examined Poulson and Gregory after the attack, quickly concluded that it was a reptilian attack. And Mazzotti, who has viewed pictures of Poulson's and Gregory's wounds, agrees. 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 fresh water, can also 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 descriptions given by Poulson and Gregory 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."

Mazzotti said that despite his own suspicions, it is unlikely the incident will be recorded as a documented crocodile attack. Nobody actually saw the offending creature and the bite marks are likely not extensive enough to differentiate between alligator and crocodile.

Gregory and Poulson show marks from one or two teeth, but it would take a complete outline of the beast's jaw line 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 everything from birds to sharks to smaller fish with his bare hands. In fact, he dreams of having his own TV show, Steve Irwin-like, where he can use those skills.

Last week's attack, he says, 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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