Everyone always asks us about kayaking with alligators, so we’ll talk about the alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) first.
If there is a body of water in Florida, from a backyard pool or drainage ditch to Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades, you may see a gator. And while occasionally a person is bitten by a gator here in Florida, contrary to sensatinalist news reports, humans are not common dinner fare for our gators. A human standing or sitting in a boat is, from the alligator’s point of view, too large to be considered as prey.
However, you should be particularly careful of small children and family pets on and around the water. Dog seems to be a special treat for gators so we leave our dogs at home on almost all of. An alligator’s preferred prey are fish, birds, turtles, snakes, amphibians and small mammals such as muskrat, nutria, and raccoon. Baby alligators eat insects, tadpoles, minnows and small frogs.
People who get bitten by gators are generally swimming in murky water or swimming between dawn and dusk during warm weather – times of poor visibility. To put things into perspective, 9 people were killed by alligators in Florida in the 11 years from 2003 through 2013 while 31,888 died in traffic accidents. So your chances of being killed driving to your launch site are 3500 times greater than that of being chomped by a gator.
When seen or encountered on a river, gators will almost always submerge or slither into the water to get away. Fight takes a lot more energy than flight, and reptiles are great energy conservationists. However, you do have to use some common sense. Never feed or harass a gator, always leave them an unobstructed escape route to the water, don’t swim between dusk and dawn when visibility is low and gators usually feed, and don’t get between mamma and her babies.
Also, be particularly wary during the mating season from April through May when the males may defend their territory and the nesting months of July through September when the females will aggressively defend their stick-mound nests. Bottom line – you really don’t want to mess with a large carnivore with a brain the size of a walnut any time. Give them the respect they deserve.
Baby gators are 8-12 inches when they hatch and have beautiful yellow stripes which help them to disappear into stream-side grasses. Mother gators will stay with the babies for up to 2 years, providing them some protection. By the time mamma leaves them on their own, the babies are generally 2-3 feet long and can defend themselves from all but large predators. However, in spite of mamma’s defensive nature, up to 90% of baby gators do not make it to 3 years of age.
Depending upon food supply and other environmental factors, gators will grow 8-12 inches per year for the first 5-6 years of life. At this point their rate of growth drops off considerably. That’s why most of the gators you will see are around 6 feet in length.
The alligator plays an extremely important role in Florida’s ecosystem and is considered a keystone species. Gators dig and sweep out with their tails hiding holes in the river and swamp bottoms. During the dry season, especially in particularly dry years when some streams and swamps dry up, these “gator holes” may be the only source of water for many species of wildlife.
You will most frequently see gators on the surface in the vegetation along the edges of rivers and streams or on spring runs up on the banks and logs basking in the sun. Give them a wide berth – 30 feet or so – and they will not bother you. Alligators are “cold-blooded,” meaning that they cannot regulate their own body temperature, but assume the temperatures of their environment. To warm themselves, alligators bask in the sun.
On hot summer days they can sometimes be seen basking with their mouths open. This is not a sign of aggression or a smile – it’s a cooling mechanism similar to a dog panting.
A lot of the time the pics below show about all you will ever see of a gator and you sometimes have to keep your eyes really open to spot them.
To top it off, if you want a great gator pic to send home to friends, visit Stumpknockers Restaurant on State Rd 200 between Inverness and Ocala on the banks of the Withlacoochee River. It’s a statue, of course, but your friends don’t need to know that!