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Gators, poisonous snakes are hazards for South Florida canal divers

IN THE EVERGLADES — Doug Updike has a lot on his mind as he slips beneath the brown, murky surface of South Florida's 2,000 miles of flood control canals.

It's dark down there — never mind the alligators, poisonous snakes, snapping turtles and powerful equipment that can suck in a limb.

Updike is part of a team of specialized divers for the South Florida Water Management District who maintain the country's largest flood control system of its kind. The divers' duties include repairing pumps and floodgates, removing blockages and adding new equipment.

Fearless as they may be, there is an occasional scare or two.

"There was many times when you'd get bumped by something, you'd think it was your other diver, and you turn and look and it would be an 800-pound manatee," Updike says. "Much rather it be that than a 12-foot alligator."

Updike recalls moving ropes underwater only to find one of the tangles in his hand was a slippery water snake.

But it's a job, and Updike wouldn't have it any other way.

"I couldn't sit at a desk all day," he says. "That's just not me. I'd much rather be out here."

Much of South Florida wasn't meant for people. Historically a vast, soggy swamp, much of the region was drained, diked and dammed to divert water out to sea a century ago, making way for development and farms.

Today, the system's network of canals from Orlando to the Florida Keys — 60 pump stations and 2,200 water control structures — requires constant upkeep.

"Whatever needs to be done underwater, our dive team takes care of it," Updike says.

The typical morning starts with a careful survey of waters around the divers' work area, scanning for alligators that must be removed by a professional trapper before it's safe to go in.

Cory Burlew wanders the area with a fishing pole, peering out into the canals for telltale breath bubbles that indicate an alligator is lurking beneath the surface.

"There's a lot of gators out here," says Burlew, a commercial fisherman and state-licensed alligator trapper. "I've seen days where there's 15 to 20 in one spot."

He casts his weighted, hooked line into the water, just over where the gator is believed to be, and yanks hard, snagging the reptile's scaly skin.

Then comes the hard work of reeling in the beefy animal, pulling it close enough to shore to get a nooselike rope around its neck and wrangling it onto land. The gator is then bound, its toothy mouth clamped shut, and loaded into the back of a truck. The process is repeated until the waters are safe for divers.

As part of his payment, Burlew gets to keep the gators he catches to sell for meat and hides.

Gators, poisonous snakes are hazards for South Florida canal divers 03/01/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 1, 2009 9:57pm]
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