Tuesday, June 18, 2024

When dealing with crocodiles, expect the unexpected

In Part 4 of “The Crocodile Chronicles,” the cast and crew of The Gator Boys reality TV show had arrived in Mazatlán for their first day of on-camera croc wrangling in Mexico, and the writer learned the art of wrangling local officials who craved their moment in the spotlight. Now, in the final installment, it’s finally time for the cast and crew to film “captures” of the reptiles they’d rented to make on-screen debuts in various amenable Mazatlán urban locations.

The days were long during our first week of production of The Gator Boys episodes in Mexico. The crocodile captures were going smoothly enough that confidence levels were high as we rolled into the very upmarket Estrella Del Mar golf resort.

We had previously scouted a couple of water features there (or water traps if you are a golfer) and had Gator Boys Jimmy Riffle and Paul Bedard pick the one they preferred. Since the temperature was hovering in the low 90s, there were no golfers to contend with.

The croc box was unloaded, and the 10-foot snapper went for the water with lightning speed.

After a long silence, several members of the group said in close unison, “Wow, where did it go?”

crocodile in Mazatlan
The Captured Tourist Woman and a probably sleeping specimen.

The chosen water feature was about 700 square meters, about chest-deep in the center, and not very clear. The program’s two stars had several hundred or more gator captures under their belt, so when they looked a bit nervous, we all took notice.

Given the size of this croc, neither Paul nor Jimmy really wanted to wade through the water while poking around with the capture pole.  They muttered accordingly. But there was a job to be done, and the wading and poking method would be the only way to locate the now well-hidden animal.

It was a tense time. The cameras were ready when the angry crocodile broke the surface with jaws open wide. After 20 minutes of thrashing and snapping, the beast was subdued and the golf course was once again safe.

In between the captures, the cast was being followed around by the cameras while enjoying Mazatlán’s many amenities. Eric the director let us know that he wanted to shoot a romantic dinner scene with Jimmy and his partner Ashley, also a sometime-gator catcher.

The scenario they planned was to have Jimmy surprise Ashley with a special and romantic dinner at an outdoor venue in the Plazuela Machado, the cultural center of the historic district.

Although expressly instructed not to let the secret out, my partner, The Captured Tourist Woman (TCTW), however, felt it would be only fair to inform Ashley of the plan because she should be able to properly dress for the special occasion and have the chance to make sure her hair looked good, plus other reasons that TCTW said made her unwilling to play a part in potentially embarrassing the woman.

Ashley’s job was appearing on TV, so she could act as surprised as she needed to surely? Both the TCTW and myself deemed this a minor contravention to the edict of secrecy assumed by the term “surprise.”

After all, TCTW and I discussed, if Ashley was not informed of the romantic dinner at the very nice outdoor eatery with a liveried waitstaff, a wine list with selections costing several thousand pesos, a menu containing excellent examples of several regional specialties highlighting the great culinary art of Mexico, live but not loud background music, linen napkins and tablecloths, she might show up in a sweatshirt and sweatpants. How embarrassing would that be for her? And it would all be on camera.

So TCTW had a quiet chat with Ashley during lunch break and let her know that the evening would be spent at one of Mazatlán’s better restaurants.

The crew had spent about an hour there to set up the scene. They provided attractive ambient soft lighting cast upon the 160-year-old adobe wall with arched windows. The camera angle was slightly above the plane of the table to showcase the two gourmet meals soon to grace the linen tablecloth.

When the romantic couple arrived, Jimmy looked like he was wearing the same clothes he had worn during the day’s two captures. I learned later that Jimmy’s wardrobe consisted of numerous changes of the same clothing so that he was never out of character. And, of course, Ashley was in a sweatshirt.

They were both drinking Pacíficos while perusing the multi-page menu. When the waiter came to take their order, they each ordered hamburgers. These folks were fearless when it came to facing several hundred pounds of dangerous reptile, but the culinary adventure of something new and different was significantly outside their box. When I glanced at TCTW’s horrified face and wide eyes, she gave me the hand sign that meant do not say anything.

Cast and crew of The Gator Boys episodes in Mazatlán.
The cast and crew of The Gator Boys episodes in Mazatlán.

The days whizzed along. We were fast coming up on the scheduled encounter with the humongous crocodile out at the estuary. Two days in advance, I contacted the shrimp farmers there to reconfirm our date with Godzilla the giant crocodile, now known as El Diablo, that they had promised me existed.

They were very excited! They were ready and would fire up the old Ford V8, which ran the lights and pump, to see if the giant croc would show up for a test run. Apparently, the crocodile sensed the vibrations of the running engine, which signaled chow time.

I was still concerned about any direct contact with a 16-foot, 800-pound predator that had lost its fear of people. Although I made no mention of it, I was glad that most of the show was already in the can prior to this confrontation.

On the scheduled day for the estuary, I called the shrimp farmers again and was told the Ford had developed a serious rod knock. One of the shrimp farmers had been dispatched to Culiacán for parts. The El Diablo encounter would need to be rescheduled.

I gave Eric the bad news. He said depending on a few shrimp farmers to reassemble a 50-year-old engine in a timely manner was too great of a risk. We needed another El Diablo — fast.

Jorge, our always helpful and supportive Mazatlán aquarium contact, suggested using one of his crocodiles for the El Diablo scene. Since he had a croc over 12 feet long and 600 pounds, it would not be as dramatic as Godzilla, but then again, no one would be facing certain death or disfigurement.

So we took the 12-footer and staged the scene at the edge of an estuary abutting the aquarium site. The camera angles had to be perfect so that no condo towers or hotels would show in the finished product. The croc was so docile, it needed to be poked with a stick several times just to animate the lethargic reptile. I don’t think anyone in the cast realized how serious a bullet they had dodged.

When the two-part Mazatlán episode was aired, we were told the ratings had been unprecedented. Myself and all the locals involved with the making of the two episodes had a great time with no severe injuries except for a stinky crocodile transport van.

The writer describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time in Mazatlán with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half-wild dog. He can be reached at [email protected].

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