The 11-foot-long American crocodile captured last month at Lake Tarpon is one roaming reptile.
State wildlife experts now say they are sure it was born in 1999 near the Turkey Point nuclear plant in Miami-Dade County, meaning it traveled some 350 miles around the southern tip of the state, cruising north through canals, maneuvering among mangrove roots and in the end setting a record for the farthest distance ever documented for a crocodile to travel in Florida.
How do they know this was the same crocodile? Because biologists mark the newborn crocs around Turkey Point by clipping the scutes — the armored tiles — on the tail, leaving a distinctive pattern to help identify them later, according to Gary Morse, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Florida is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles coexist. Experts estimate about 2,000 crocodiles, North America's largest reptile and an endangered species, live in Florida, a tenfold increase from the 200 or so found here in the 1970s.
Most of the crocs live in the Crocodile Lake National Refuge in Key Largo or around Turkey Point, a 6,000-acre facility that contains 150 miles of canals full of warm water adjacent to Biscayne Bay.
But not this particularly single-minded crocodile. It has been wandering for quite a while.
No one knows how long it has been paddling steadily northward, but in 2008, it showed up on the golf course at the Grey Oaks Country Club in Naples, Morse said.
Country club residents were not happy. They demanded the big lizard be evicted, so the state dispatched a trapper who caught it.
The state's top croc expert, Lindsey Hord, checked its gender (male) and took down its vital signs. At that point, it measured 8-feet-4 1/4 inches long. Hord released it into the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Reserve south of Naples, where it quickly swam away.
"I have a feeling we're going to see this one again,'' Hord told the Times then. "You move them, they want to come back.''
Sure enough, a year later the croc had returned to the country club, Morse said. That time, state wildlife officials left it alone. They think it might have roamed up to the Manatee River just south of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
And then, about a year ago, North Pinellas residents began reporting a big gray reptile near their backyard docks on 2,534-acre Lake Tarpon. It wasn't a full-time resident there, either. It showed up briefly last fall on a lawn in St. Petersburg's Caya Costa, a gated community that borders Tampa Bay, then disappeared again. No one who saw the critter confused it with its more common cousin.
"He didn't look anything like a gator. He had big spikes sticking out of his tail. It just looked evil," one Lake Tarpon area resident, Wanda Vekasi, told the Times last month.
Trapping the 700-pound beast in the lake took about four hours. Then state officials trucked the critter they're now calling "the Lake Tarpon Crocodile" all the way back to the area south of Homestead, back to where its journey began nine years ago, and released it there July 29.
Other Florida crocodiles have strayed from the Turkey Point area — winding up in Miami swimming pools or laying eggs on a lawn in Key West. None has covered nearly as many miles as this one, the Captain Cook of crocs.
What drove the champ to swim so far? There's no telling, Morse said. "Occasionally animals will wander out of their traditional territory," he said, noting that a manatee once wound up in Massachusetts. Sometimes wildlife wanderlust ends badly — one Florida panther traveled all the way to Georgia before a deer hunter shot it dead.
As for whether the Lake Tarpon croc will go wandering again, Morse said, it's hard for humans to peer into a crocodile's mind. After all, he said, "Croc minds are not particularly large."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]