The Florida Alligator -- Likely this state's most prominent symbol
Is there any more prominent symbol of Florida than the Florida alligator? Found throughout the state, alligators are more plentiful than they have been since I can remember.
As a kid growing up in Florida in the fifties and sixties, an alligator sighting was almost a rarity. Nowadays, it seems as if they're everywhere. A boyhood friend who lives in inland south Florida tells me he can't even let his dogs swim in the canals anymore. "Too many gators," he said.
More gator attacks
At one time, Florida alligator populations were so thinned out by hide hunters, that laws were enacted to protect the big reptiles.Those laws must have worked. We now have over one million alligators in Florida. Add to that the fact that we now have over 17 million people in Florida, and you have the right mix for more gator attacks on humans in this state.
While alligators don't normally seem to think of adult humans as prey, who really knows what these massive, toothy holdovers of the dinosaur age think?
You can't trust an alligator
Never trust a Florida alligator, or any alligator for that matter. They may lie around looking lifeless and legarthic, but they move with lightning burts of speed. I once saw a tourist in Georgia's Okefenokee swamp tap a sleeping alligator on the snout with a stick. In the flash of an eye, that gator was up on all fours, mouth open and ready for action.
The man's little girl--around five years old--was standing next to him. Watching from a distance, my heart darn-near stopped. Why that alligator did not attack is beyond me, but it just stood there in an all-four gator stance, mouth wide open. The man turned pale as a ghost, and after he and his daughter had backed away to a safe distance, a nearby Federal Park Ranger chewed him out royally.
That poor guy reminds me of so many people I see at State and National Parks getting too close to alligators. If these folks had any idea that an alligator can outrun a horse over a short distance, they'd probably be a lot more careful. Fact: an alligator can run 30 miles-per-hour for quite a few yards. I always think of them as big lizards, and most of us know how fast a lizard can move when it wants to. Stay far enough away from an alligator so that the decision as to whether or not you're attacked remains with you, NOT the alligator.
Don't feed the gators
In their natural, wild state alligators--especially the big ones--tend go out of their way to avoid people, their only natural enemy. I've seen huge, sunning Florida alligators on the banks of darkwater creeks hit the water to avoid an encounter with me in my canoe. But let alligators get too used to people, and they can become downright bold around humans. Even worse, let an alligator be fed by people, and you have the makings of a tragedy. There are plenty of places in this state--right now I'm thinking of Loop Road off U.S. 41 in the Big Cypress--where some gators will not only not run from you, they'll actually come up to investigate whenever they see people. I can only bet that some thoughtless people have thrown marshmallows, half-eaten sandwiches, twinkies, fried chicken bones and the like to these creatures, and they now associate us humans with food.
Bad situation, either for the gator, or infinitely worse, for a person who gets too close. I say bad for the gator because "a fed gator is a dead gator." Sooner or later a large menacing alligator will have to be destroyed. But if that gator actually attacks and kills someone, well, there's a tragedy none of us want even to think about, much less see or read about.
The life of a Florida alligator
Adult Florida alligators are usually 6 to 12 feet long. The largest recorded Florida alligator measured 17 feet 5 inches. Imagine a 17-foot canoe. Now imagine a gator a little longer than that. Whoa.
Now, consider that an alligator will eat just about anything that comes between its jaws--yes, including a human once in a while, especially those "tame" ones that associate us with food.
During spring and summer, a female alligator builds a nest of leaves and other vegetation in which to lay her eggs. If you see a large leaf-mound in an area where gators are likely to be, remain cautious. If it's a gator nest, there may be a protective female nearby. The female protects her eggs and her young until they are about 2 feet in size.
After that, she would not hesitate to eat them. Baby gators make a high-pitched umph-umph sound which is sure to attract the attention of the nearby mother and arouse her protective zeal.
The adult male alligator makes a low-pitched bellowing sound, while the adult female produces a pig-like grunt.
Swimming in Florida fresh waters
Now, regarding where I think it's safe to swim and where I think it's not--General rule: All Florida fresh waters have alligators. There may be, of course, exceptions to the general rule. However, the Other rule is: You can't be sure there are exceptions to the general rule.
I'll swim in some clearwater lakes where neither I nor others with whom I have spoken, have ever seen a gator. I swim in these lakes with almost carefree abandon. I'd even let a dog swim there. (Gators love to eat dogs.) But you know what? I've known gators to walk from one lake to another overnight. The little lake I live on normally has no gators, but every few years,we'll wake up in the morning to see one that just walked in several hundred yards from Lake Santa Fe.
There are other lakes and rivers where I know gators are theoretically around, but I don't see too many of them and they don't seem to pose a problem. I'll swim in these areas with due caution. I'd hesitate to swim there at dawn, dusk, or at night though because that's when alligators feed. Why push my luck? Also, I wouldn't want to swim with a dog there. In my experience, dogs attract alligators.
Finally, there are some places, that I would NOT--I say again, I would NOT--voluntarily swim. These are places just lousy with alligators--BIG Florida alligators. Newnans Lake near Gainesville is one such place. I've stood fishing on the banks and counted at least a dozen huge alligators lined up like battleships along the point where I stood.
If attacked by an alligator...
If attacked by an alligator, strike back at the gator’s eyes and nose,which are sensitive areas. Any item that can be used as a weapon would be helpful, such as a knife, paddle, or club. If you have no weapon, use fists or feet. Alligators often roll over repeatedly in an attempt to kill or disorient their prey. Such rolling can cause severe damage to the victim of an attack. If the creature has you in its jaws and you can prevent it from rolling (I don’t have any suggestions as to how to do this), by all means, do so. An alligator’s jaws can be easily held shut, but it’s next to impossible to pry them open. If a gator has hold of something you want it to let go of, punching it on the snout may cause the animal to
open its mouth.
Here's a 60-seconds gator video--a bit of ominous whimsy (if there is such a thing) I put together for your entertainment. Notice the massive size of this home-grown Florida alligator, and what a powerful swimmer he is--a real, modern-day dinosaur. I filmed this at Alachua Sink in Gainesville--a great place to go if you want to see gators.
I hope you enjoy this short clip of wild Florida. While in Gainesville, be sure to see Alachua Sink, Gainesville's original "Gator Swamp."