TARPON SPRINGS — Wanda Vekasi had been hearing stories about a crocodile in Lake Tarpon for almost a year. But that wasn't the first thing that came to mind when she saw a long, peculiar object floating behind her waterfront home Monday evening.
An alligator? Vekasi has seen "more than enough" gators after living in the area for 13 years. But this was different.
"He didn't look anything like a gator. He had big spikes sticking out of his tail. It just looked evil," she said. "When I saw its mouth open, I just knew I didn't want to go out looking for it."
What Vekasi saw floating in the big freshwater lake turned out to be a 700-pound, 11-foot-long American crocodile.
No other crocodile has been captured this far north, a wildlife official said, though one was photographed in northeast St. Petersburg in 2011.
Vekasi called a trapper she'd been working with recently to capture alligators near her home. It took Mike Amyx and three crew members more than four hours to capture the creature, Vekasi said.
The crocodile was sent to a rehabilitation facility in South Florida and will most likely be released back into the wild.
State officials had been aware of the crocodile in Lake Tarpon for more than a year, said Gary Morse, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
American crocodiles, which are on the federal endangered species list, are found in South Florida, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. Experts estimate there are approximately 2,000 crocodiles statewide.
Morse said it's "not beyond reason" that a crocodile could make it to the Tampa Bay region.
"Wildlife tends to move around a lot. We've seen manatees in Massachusetts before. Animals sometimes get wanderlust and that was the case here," he said.
Morse said the crocodile probably used a combination of culverts, creeks, rivers and land to travel to Lake Tarpon, a 2,534-acre lake known for boating, bass fishing and waterfront parks.
For Vekasi, who enjoys swimming there and frequently walks her dog in the back yard, the crocodile capture provided peace of mind in more than one way.
"Man, after seeing that thing and how big it was," she said, "I'm just not afraid of gators anymore."
Matt McKinney can be reached at (727) 445-4156 or [email protected] Twitter: Mmckinne17.