'Gators and snakes and turtles -- wild stars of PBS special

It is a weird and wonderful place, an enchanted world the Indians call ``The Land of the Trembling Earth.'' Ancient survivors of the distant past gather at night, eyes glowing ominously in the dark . We are in the 438,000-acre natural basin known as Okefenokee Swamp on the Georgia-Florida border, exploring the thousands of floating islands and visiting with a few of the 12,000 alligators populating the mystic swamp. We are viewing one of the most chilling and thoroughly remarkable environments in the world, courtesy of National Geographic's Realm of the Alligator (PBS, Wednesday, 8-9 p.m., check local listings).

Some people know Okefenokee only as the place where the comic-strip character Pogo dwells. But for many years, as this documentary points out, hundreds of ``swampers'' lived there as well, never leaving the swamp, making a complete life for themselves within the confines of Okefenokee.

After the prime timber was cleared by outsiders, the logging camps that provided employment moved off and the environment changed. By 1937, Okefenokee was almost completely devoid of settlers. It was soon declared a natural wildlife refuge.

Now it is populated by alligators and snakes and otters and woodpeckers -- and scientists studying all of the aforementioned. ``Realm of the Alligator'' takes viewers deep into the black waters of the swamp to try to unlock some of the secrets of alligators.

John Paling, a biologist and filmmaker, and Kent Vliet, an alligator expert, seek out the creatures. They swim with them, play with them, visit their nests, and watch them court and mate. You may not end up loving the 'gators, but you will certainly understand them better.

Even though other flora and fuana are featured, the undisputed star of the program is the alligator. Viewers will see them gliding silently, seizing prey, gently courting each other, roaring to ward off intruders, and tenderly caring for their babies.

There are unforgettable moments in this film -- carnivorous plants luring insects, snakes climbing trees in an attempt to reach woodpecker nests hundreds of feet in the air, a mother turtle cleverly laying her eggs in an alligator nest in order to protect her young from marauding bears and raccoons, Kent Vliet standing quietly in the swamp as the alligators swim close by to inspect him, and the night shots of alligator eyes glowing in the dark.

``Realm of the Alligators'' is a coproduction of the National Geographic Society and WQED of Pittsburgh, and funded by Chevron. Pernell Roberts narrates. The documentary has managed to present a seemingly hostile habitat so honestly and lovingly that in many viewers's eyes, Okefenokee Swamp will take its rightful place as one of the nation's most sublimely beautiful primeval environments.

Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.

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