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Don't try this at home: Swimming with gators

The second Jose Fernandez slips into the cypress-lined Everglades pond, a resident alligator slices across green glassy water to confront him.

Pushing seven feet and clearly pugnacious, even without the clue of a chewed-off left rear leg, it stops a snout-length from a camera Fernandez holds like a shield. After a staredown, the gator circles, slow and shark-like, hissing bad intention.

At this point, a typical person might get nervous, maybe rethink why he ever waded into this gator-infested hole. Fernandez stays put and calmly follows as the animal moves and dives, snapping pictures under water.

Fernandez is not typical. At all.

He has joined a very small, very savvy, very crazy band of swamp divers -- people who purposefully jump into dark and dangerous ponds, pools, canals and creeks of the Everglades and its surrounding wild waters. They do it for science, to make movies, to observe or capture uncommon scenes in an element of the Everglades few humans ever see.

And, yes, for damn scary fun. Entering the hidden haunts of the lizard king of the Everglades, a creature capable of snapping human bones like tortilla chips, is an electric jolt.

"It's very, very exciting, " said Fernandez, a South Miami man whose murky immersions have rekindled passion for a photography profession he abandoned years ago. "There are times when you're in there and the alligators bump into you. Sometimes, they take off in a very small area, and it's like a chain reaction, they all start flying by and hitting you."

Swamp diving is eerie, fascinating, frightening . . . and an experience that almost everyone should truly never, ever try. Don't even think about it.

The experts stress it's foolhardy, daft, dumb and every other word meaning stupid unless you've spent years handling or observing gators. Even with vast experience, it's not risk-free, said Manny Puig, whose Tarzanesque physique and skill at free-diving and wrangling sharks, gators and other large critters have been displayed as "Sharkman" for The Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and other cable television networks.

Puig, who became friends with Fernandez through spearfishing outings, spent much of his life in South Florida studying and interacting with wildlife under water. Over the years, he has tutored a few friends in the ways of the Glades' most formidable animal.

"I'm not trying to get people to practice it. I tell people this is extremely dangerous, " Puig said. "This animal is the king of the swamp. He's a dominant predator out there. He fights and kills for his meals. He fights with his own kind."

'PSYCHOPATHS'

And, just like humans, they're all different, Puig says. "Some alligators are psychopaths; some are not."

Still, Kent Vliet, a University of Florida biologist who once spent weeks swimming up close and personal with the denizens of an alligator farm to study mating habits, said experts can read gator signs well enough to mingle "reasonably safely." They learn warning hisses, mock charges, sizing-you-up bumps and the heightened aggression of mating or mothers protecting nests -- and, most important, when to get out of the water.

But misreading or irritating one can get a hand or foot chomped off or worse. Gators often store large carcasses in underwater snags.

And while most gators are "fairly easily intimidated" and willing to back off if properly challenged, Vliet said, they're also curious and don't see so well under water.

"They aren't looking at this thing moving in the water thinking it's a person, " he said. "They're thinking it's a dead raccoon or a duck or something."

Needless to say, some consider Fernandez loco. Beba, his wife of 22 years, dislikes it but tolerates it -- as long as he calls immediately after to report all his pieces, 10 fingers and toes, remain intact.

"I always knew when I married him he was different than the norm. He doesn't settle for just going the average, " she said. When he took up sky diving, for instance, he relished waiting till the last second to yank that rip cord.

Other family members, she said, are less accepting. "My Cuban mother, her sense of adventure is walking around the block by herself. It's, 'For the love of God, Jose, why are going out there again? Forget it!' "

Swimming in the Glades isn't new. Miccosukee, Seminole and other dwellers have done it for generations. There are countless yarns of daredevil hunters and even game wardens leaping off airboats to wrestle reptiles. And there are the select sorts of nature- and thrill-lovers drawn to dark waters.

"There are probably more than you realize, " said Peter Zuccarini, a Coconut Grove filmmaker who specializes in underwater work. He ran into a number of amateurs when he was filming his 2000 documentary, Everglades: Home of the Living Dinosaurs.

"What makes it so interesting is the moodiness, " he said, "how much you can't see."

But that's also why there seems little danger swamp diving will become popular or the next extreme sport. On a shark- or barracuda-feeding scuba trip, you can at least see beasts approach and there are other beauties to enjoy -- colorful reefs and bright tropical fish. Not so in the claustrophobic gloom of Glades waters.

LOOKING FOR GATORS

Last month, Fernandez, a technician; Clemente DiMuro, an equine dentist, and DiMuro's stepson, Tony Oropesa, all slipped into a canal no wider than a car and cloaked by overgrowth. They had encountered 50 gators there a few weeks earlier.

"It looks like something out of the monster from the black lagoon, " Fernandez joked as he donned mask, snorkel and fins. He and DiMuro both carried Puig's wicked-looking custom knives, but Fernandez patted the sheath and said, "a false sense of security."

What they swim through might as well be liquid smoke. Light leaks down in smears and streaks though water stained by the tannins of decaying leaves. Thickets of sunken, brittle branches suddenly appear out of the murk, clutching at snorkels and wet suits as they squeeze through or flipper under, trying not to stir up rotting vegetation and fine silt lining the bottom.

'LOSING IT'

In such conditions, a nearby gator shows up first only as a set of small, pale white marks in the darkness -- ovoid eyes, triangle teeth. Encountering a hulking 10½ footer in the dim, close quarters unnerved one friend, a veteran spearfisherman who had seen more than a few large sharks in open water.

"He kind of lost it and he turned around and flew out of there, " Fernandez said.

Fernandez, though, has drunk deeply of swamp water and become intoxicated -- the latest and maybe most exhilarating of a string of adventure pursuits, from flying to sky diving to competitive shooting to free-dive spearfishing.

"This is what life is about, " he said. "What are you going to do, just go to to work every day, sit around weekends and be a schmo?"

A longtime news and commercial photographer, Fernandez found the overwhelming sights inspired him to pick up cameras again. His goal is to capture images of not just gators, but gar, bass, tarpon and other aquatic life in rarely seen habitat.

Fernandez steels himself to be as "cold as ice" in approaching animals. Jitters would spoil long exposures he must use in low light. And he must repeatedly remind himself the docile animal lolling on sandy bottom or on a sunken branch is "not a puppy dog."

"You can't let a gator fool you with that bad-boy grin, " he said. "You can't trust them."

Go MiamiHerald.com and click on Today's Extras for a photo gallery.

ALLIGATOR LAWS

Rules about swamp diving are a bit murky. Swimming is allowed in Everglades National Park, the Big Cypress National Wildlife Refuge and state-owned Everglades lands -- but sharply discouraged everywhere because of risks of attack from alligators.

But state and federal laws also prohibit wildlife harassment so, depending on the judgment of a park ranger or state officer, divers could be cited for approaching too closely or disrupting normal activities. Fines can run hundreds of dollars.

"As far as this agency is concerned, there are no rules about it, " said Henry Cabbage, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "I would suggest you not touch the alligator, but they're probably not doing that."

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