IN THE EVERGLADES, Fla. -- It's 7 a.m. in the marsh, and like some sort of cigar-chomping swamp cowboy, biologist Lindsey Hord is about to reach for something that could cost him a few fingers -- or worse -- if he's not careful.
It's the first day of Florida's annual alligator egg collection program, a yearly ritual to replenish stocks for the state's gator farmers.
Hord and several other airboat pilots fire up their engines, giant fan blades spinning until they growl, and slowly glide out into a canal, voices crackling over their radios.
Thwump, thwump, thwump. A helicopter swoops overhead -- the nest spotter.
Hord roars up to a small island and peers into the brush for a nest that to the untrained eye looks like just a patch of wet dirt.
He kneels beside the mound, carefully pulling apart the mulchlike mass of dark, damp weeds. Over his shoulder, just a few feet away, mama gator's bulbous eyes float ominously on the water's surface. She's watching but keeping her distance.
"Her cave is right here somewhere, that's why she's nesting here," Hord says.
He gently pulls the eggs from the dirt and swipes a line on the tops with a black marker before placing them carefully in a plastic bin lined with muck to keep them warm.
"If they're not marked and we roll them over, it'll kill the embryo," Hord says.
To some, this might seem, well, crazy. For Hord, who helps coordinate alligator management in a state with more than a million of the prehistoric, toothy reptiles, it's another day at the office.
"You always have to watch your back," Hord says. "Usually, they will hiss and snap and make all kinds of noise, but I've had them just literally sneak up on me."
Each summer, scientists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission help collect up to 40,000 eggs for 30 farmers who share in the catch.
Each farmer gets roughly 1,000 eggs for about $12 a pop, money that pays for the hunt and funds future alligator management programs.
By day's end, the crews collect more than a thousand eggs. Not a bad start to the roughly 20-day season.
The American alligator has made a miraculous recovery, bouncing back from the brink of extinction. In 1967, after years of overhunting and habitat loss, the gator was listed as an endangered species. But conservation efforts and hunting regulations led the federal government to pronounce the alligator fully recovered 20 years later.
Biologists say the egg collections don't harm the gator population, since a typical female lays about 35 eggs, the reptiles can reproduce for 25 years and they only need a few viable babies apiece to keep their numbers healthy.
Experts say the collections can actually help since the more alligators there are, the lower the survival rate for their young.
Since the collections began in 1988, roughly 600,000 eggs have been gathered and distributed to farmers, who can make up to $100,000 a year in profits by selling the hides (flawless ones go for about $240) and meat, which can fetch about $12 a pound retail or $6 wholesale.
Each gator produces up to seven pounds of meat, most of which is sold in the U.S., while the hides go to European tanneries to be used for products such as boots, belts, wallets and luggage.
Allen Register owns Gatorama near Palmdale in the heart of the Glades, an old Florida roadside tourist attraction and alligator farm. He's also the statewide coordinator for the collection program.
He's got some 3,000 gators on his farm and slaughters about 1,000 a year. The stress of captivity keeps female gators from laying enough eggs to sustain a farm, so the collections are needed to keep the business going.
But only the pristine, unscathed hides fetch the high prices. The gators are fed daily to keep them from being aggressive, and their heated, indoor concrete pools are kept clean of pebbles that could scratch the skin.
One tiny mark, "about the width of your fingernail," and the hide's value can drop 25 percent.
"How do you keep an animal with 88 teeth -- when you've got 50 or 60 in the same pen -- from getting a scratch on them?" Register says. "The key is to raise them fast. We want to keep them fat, dumb and happy."
Back in the marsh, Hord is on his knees, surrounded by a forest of towering sawgrass. Tiny bugs dance on the water around him. Dragonflies flutter above spider webs bigger than beach balls.
"It's not looking good," he says, digging through yet another potential nest. "We may have an empty one here."
He stands briefly to swat stinging fire ants from his legs, arms and neck, then ignores the few stragglers of biting insects and hunches over again. Squinting his eyes, Hord brushes away the dirt to reveal a layer of soft-shell turtle eggs that lay atop the real prize, the gator eggs.
"Hiding them to the side, sneaky," Hord says, plucking them up one by one, occasionally glancing over his shoulder, on the lookout for a defensive attack from the female gator.
"They're always here," he says. "Somewhere nearby. We just have to be very careful."
On the Net:
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: http://www.myfwc.com/