The far-flung archipelago of the Dry Tortugas, the most southwesterly of the Florida Keys, is minus one crocodile. And one crocodile, darn it, was all it had. 

The good news first: the formerly resident reptile, a male nicknamed "Cleatus", is still rocking and rolling, but he's now doing it on the brackish fringe of the Everglades, more than a hundred miles northeast from the island haven he'd called home for more than a decade.

The managers of Dry Tortugas National Park – among the most geographically isolated parks in the United States – decided to remove the roughly nine-foot-long American crocodile from his chosen abode on Garden Key due to safety concerns. The reptile had lately begun showing signs of unhealthy habituation to people, apparently due to anglers and other park visitors feeding him.

Cleatus first appeared in the Dry Tortugas in 2003, specifically on the chain's easternmost islet, East Key. Soon enough he'd pulled up stakes and moved westward. According to the National Park Service, he'd spent most of his tenancy in little-visited haunts of Garden and Bush keys, but more recently he was frequenting some of the park's popular visitor areas on the former islet.

These included Garden Key's campground, swimming areas and the moat edging Fort Jefferson, a mighty brickwork fortress built in the mid-1800s. (You have to admit: a crocodile prowling the moat of a castle-like stronghold is pretty much perfect.)

His new hangouts brought him into closer proximity to tourists, who unfortunately didn't help matters by tempting the croc with food. For the most part, American crocodiles are far shier around people than some of their Old World relatives (though they've earned something of a bad reputation in Costa Rica, and a Florida croc once demonstrated – in non-fatal fashion – the perils of going night swimming at South Miami house parties). But be it ground squirrel or living dinosaur, any animal accustomed to getting snacks from people may become aggressive.

"We were starting to see a strong connection between people and food for the croc," Glenn Simpson, manager of Dry Tortugas National Park, told the Miami Herald. "It would start following people. When we start to see a chance in behaviour like that, it's an indicator that the risk is a lot higher."

The final straw came recently when an angler tried to draw the crocodile closer with chum – and Cleatus enthusiastically complied.

This is why, on May 14, the Dry Tortugas croc found himself lassoed from his moat, muzzled with tape, hauled by a squad of bipeds into a plane and flown across the glittering waters of the Gulf of Mexico to more typical digs for his kind: the mangrove lagoon of West Lake in Everglades National Park.

Cleatus snapped in the waters of his old home a few years ago. Image: Dry Tortugas National Park/Facebook

Cleatus's arrival in the Dry Tortugas in the early aughts was a novelty. Closer to Cuba than the Florida mainland, this faraway sprinkle of seven sandy keys atop a coral bulwark – named by the Spaniards in the 1500s for sea turtles (tortugas) and a lack of freshwater – wasn't really thought of as croc country.

Florida marks a northern frontier for the basically tropical American crocodile, which may reach 20 feet. That was likely true even before human persecution and habitat loss starting contracting the croc's turf everywhere: unlike the subtropical American alligator, which overlaps with its toothier relative in South Florida, the American croc can't withstand cold temperatures. 

Down to a few hundred individuals in the 1970s, Florida crocodiles have rebounded to some 2,000 thanks to stringent conservation measures. Their stronghold is the South Florida mainland's Greater Everglades coast, where they inhabit mangrove backwaters and canals, as well as the islets of Florida Bay and the Upper (aka eastern) Florida Keys. 

Some evidence suggests the small croc population in the Lower Keys is growing, perhaps breeding. But a 70-mile span of open sea separates Key West and the stubbornly remote Dry Tortugas. 

A Roads & Kingdoms profile of Cleatus by Mark Hedden noted that while a DNA sample taken from the beast in 2008 revealed a Greater Everglades origin for his mother, his father might have been a Jamaican croc. In other words, Hedden wrote, "the father may have been from Jamaica (but [scientists] can't say for sure), may have swum around Cuba to get laid (but they can't say for sure), and that papa, like his son, may have been a bit of a rolling stone."

A diver bumps into Cleatus back in 2014.

Son Cleatus chanced quite the high-seas crossing to reach the Dry Tortugas from the Everglades coast or the Lower Keys, whether he made the swim unaided or surfed over on hurricane swells (as some have suggested).

The feat is impressive, but not out of character for the species: like its relative the Indo-Pacific croc, the American croc isn't at all opposed to stints in saltwater. It's mostly a coastal animal, formerly cruising much of the Caribbean, and known from tropical isles and atolls on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Itinerant crocs have showed up significantly outside their traditional geography, including South Carolina beaches.

Maybe more surprising than Cleatus's voyage was his decision to stick around the Dry Tortugas despite the distinct lack of scaly compadres. Some called him "the world's loneliest crocodile", though of course we can't say whether or not Cleatus might have relished his solitude.

It'll be interesting to see how the Dry Tortugas croc adjusts to life in West Lake, sharing quarters with others of his kind (plus alligators). Territorial disputes and perhaps romantic passion of the sort he hasn't known for at least 14 years may be in the offing. 

It's worth noting that translocated crocodiles have a habit of ditching their new quarters and hightailing it for former haunts. That said, odds are Cleatus won't be able to repeat his voyage to the distant hinterland of the Florida Keys. 

Everglades National Park staff, meanwhile, will be able to keep tabs on the croc thanks to the numbered yellow tag he now sports. 

Cleatus's laidback solitary presence in the Dry Tortugas will surely be missed. As Glenn Simpson told The Miami Herald, "It's unfortunate. We would have loved to keep him here forever."

But even if Cleatus doesn't do it himself, who's to say another croc – one not afraid of big ocean horizons – might not someday take up residence in his old HQ?



Top header image: Sebastián Restrepo Calle/Flickr