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July, 2010


by Valerie

When it comes to being impressive, alligators can't be beat. From the Gulf coast of Texas to the Carolinas, these animals are easily observed during warm weather, make great photo subjects, fascinate us with their sheer size and prehistoric appearance, and are a constant reminder that one should exercise caution when in their realm. Although their numbers once dwindled due to over-hunting, the population of these reptiles rebounded dramatically under protective laws.

I first saw alligators when my family took vacations to Florida. They were always a draw if seen along the roadside ditches or basking by lakes. When I began kayaking in Florida in the 1980s, my awareness of alligators increased by many degrees. The territorial calls of large males not only sounds loud, but the vibrations can be felt through the sides of the boat! Then there are the tiny squeaks of babies, staying in contact with their nearby mother. Trying to get photos of the little cuties is not easy when one also wants to keep a watch for the protective mother, who might be six or seven feet long but with a temper that is much shorter.

While kayaking in the Okefenokee Swamp, I once grabbed a young alligator, just because I wanted to see if I really could catch it. The animal let out such a weird noise that I nearly dropped it as I had the imaginary impression that its mother (although this youngster was really too big to still be under its mama's care ... I think) would come shooting out of the nearby weeds to rescue it. I can still remember being awed by the strength in that 2-foot long creature.

The vigor of these reptiles is truly amazing. They are all muscle. Having paddled close to a basking 4-footer in a narrow stream, it panicked and dashed right into the side of my boat. As it pushed its way underneath, it nearly capsized me and, if I hadn't seen how small it was, I would have guessed it to be half again as big.

While I rarely feel threatened by alligators since they usually want to avoid confrontation, it does make a difference that my kayak is only 13.5 feet long. Large male alligators are sometimes over 12 feet in length and they are at least as wide as my boat. I tried kayaking in a lake full of lily pads and other vegetation just north of Tallahassee when I was in college. I frequently paddled in other nearby lakes, but this one had way too many hidden alligators, and I kept feeling like I might accidentally hit one with my paddle. Once again, my imagination got the better of me and I never went back there.

Alligators that get used to humans eventually lose all fear. During a visit to Shark Valley (an area in the Everglades), I started walking down a nature trail. My hike didn't last long, though, since an 8-foot 'gator was basking right in the middle of the path. I politely asked it to move but it just glared at me, so I decided it was better to just skip that little excursion.

There are some circumstances where I am comfortable approaching alligators. If I see a relatively small individual on the beach, I am tempted to get closer, just because I know that a 4-foot long reptile cannot swallow me whole, or even piecemeal. At least not easily. I recall one instance when I did get very close to a smallish 'gator in just this kind of circumstance. I was taking pictures with a film camera and so was actually watching my subject through the viewfinder. Suddenly, it lunged. I'm glad that only my mother was there to laugh hysterically at my reaction.

One place stands out for human/alligator interactions. Myakka River State Park in Florida is 'gator heaven. There is a great deal of slow moving shallow water, marshy areas, and tall grass, and the reptiles are seen out in the lake, along the river banks, or on the park roads. There is a wooden observation platform near the dam that forms the large lake, so it is possible to sit in safety and watch as the most aggressive alligator in the area chases fishermen from their favorite spots. The low concrete dam may be crossed during the dry season. However, there is something really creepy about walking on a narrow barrier, only a foot or two above the water line, at dusk. That something is quite tangible: alligators are all about, and they feed at night.

Even though the presence of these formidable reptiles makes me uneasy when I walk our little dog near water, and I've sometimes had to forgo the pleasure of a swim in an attractive area just because it was alligator habitat, I wouldn't ever want these beasts to disappear. We have tamed so much of our world that a little reminder of the wild part is always welcome.

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