Back in the 1970s, the future was not looking bright for the American crocodile, a hulking but shy reptile that once made its home throughout the mangrove and estuarine regions of South Florida. Due to over-hunting and habitat destruction, the species’ numbers had dwindled to fewer than 300 individuals in the state. In 1975, Florida’s American crocodiles were listed as endangered.
But just two years later, something unexpected happened. Employees at the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station, located around 25 miles south of Miami, spotted a crocodile nest among the plant’s man-made network of cooling canals. Florida Power & Light Co. (FPL), the company that operates the plant, set up a program to monitor and protect the crocodiles that had settled in this unusual habitat. And ever since, the plant’s resident croc population has been booming.
According to Marcus Lim of the Associated Press, FPL wildlife specialists collected 73 crocodile hatchlings just last week, and are expecting dozens more to emerge into the world over the remainder of the summer. Twenty-five percent of the 2,000 American crocodiles that now live in the United States call Turkey Point home, and the FPL has been credited with helping down-list the species’ status from “endangered” to “threatened”—a change that happened in 2007.
Female American crocodiles can lay between 30 and 50 eggs, which they deposit into nests in late April or early May. In July and August, the hatchlings emerge, and the mother scoops them up in her mouth and carries them to a body of water. After that point, the babies are typically on their own and most will never make it to adulthood, due to predation by fish, gulls, birds and crabs. But at Turkey Point, a team of scientists is ready and waiting to give the hatchlings a boost.
Once they are captured by FPL specialists, the crocodile babies are measured and tagged with microchips, so the team is able to track them. The hatchlings are then released back into ponds that the FPL created or relocated to refuges, in order to increase their chances of survival. Since the monitoring program was established in 1978, experts have tagged some 7,000 babies. Even before the hatchlings are born, the FPL helps them out by creating habitats that are suitable for crocodile nesting.
“You're talking about a coastal species; this is a species that depends on the coast to survive,” Michael Lloret, a biologist who works with FPL, tells Kristi E. Swartz of E&E News, a publication that focuses on energy and the environment. “We have the interesting situation where we can alter our land to entice crocodiles to come here.”
There are several reasons why the cooling canals of Turkey Point make for a fruitful habitat for crocs and other animals—like snakes, otters, raccoons and manatees, which have also taken up residence there, according to Swartz. For one, the site is relatively isolated, allowing the animals to go about their business without human interference. The plant is also located near Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park.
“Pretty much all of the wildlife goes to those areas and can easily come to our areas,” Lloret tells Swartz.
What’s more, the 5,900-acre canal system provides American crocodiles with ideal nesting areas, at a time when coastal development and rising sea levels have led to the destruction of critical crocodile breeding ground. The animals lay their eggs in well drained soils adjacent to water, which offers access to the water without the risk of flooding. The construction of the Turkey Point canals inadvertently created raised patches of land, or “berms,” where American crocodiles can happily deposit their eggs.
But is Turkey Point the reptilian utopia that it seems? In 2016, Jenny Staletovich of the Miami Herald reported that high levels of tritium, a radioactive isotope, had been discovered in Biscayne Bay, confirming fears that the canals were leaking into Biscayne National Park. The study that drew attention to the issue did not address possible threats to humans or wildlife, but by that point, a Tallahassee judge had already ordered the plant to clean up its canals.
The cleanup effort is ongoing, but that has not appeased opponents of Turkey Point’s canals. In March, Staletovich reported that nuclear regulators had ordered a hearing over plans to keep the plant operating until the 2050s, prompted by a number of environmental concerns. Among those concerns is the presence of ammonia in the canals’ waters, which some worry is harming endangered and threatened species. And as hospitable as the Turkey Point environment is for nesting crocodiles, it can quickly turn hostile. In 2015, high temperatures in Florida led to increased salinity in the canals, which experts think led to a marked drop in crocodile nests.
Whatever happens to the plant, humans are going to have to continue taking action to ensure the future of the species. As Joe Wasilewski, a wildlife expert at the University of Florida, tells Swartz, “Without man's intervention—Turkey Point or no Turkey Point—the number of crocodiles will go down.”