Thanks to a drought, alligators are coming out all around South Florida, seemingly. They prefer to be in marshy areas, but the marshes are dry, and they’re seeking watering holes wherever they can. Canals, ponds, golf courses – they’re all over the place.
Friend Jim Furci was recently at Green Cay Wetlands – a super spot for relaxing and shooting wildlife and flora. He shot the bad boy above. Its pose reminds me of dozens of ashtrays and souvenirs from the ’50s, way before Disney had his eye on Orlando.
You can see them swimming in or near Lake Okeechobee, too. They sun on the banks and rocks, and usually slither into the water if they hear you. At night, it’s eerie – their red eyes reflect just above the waterline around the water’s edge from flashlights; that scene never fails to give me goosebumps.
You’ll hear them, too: The bulls bellow during mating season – it sounds otherworldly.
Alligator wrestling a popular sport
Alligator exhibits and attractions were all over the place in Florida back in the day. US Highway 27 running through the middle of the state before the Turnpike had every Florida attraction known to man, including many gator places.
And if they didn’t have live gators on site, they had dead ones you could buy. Little preserved alligator heads that served as ashtrays, or ugh! back-scratchers on a stick made from alligator feet. Gator-skin purses were all the rage; some had the real head as a closure on the flap – my Aunt Armeta had one.
As a girl, we’d take field trips once a year to the Seminole reservation in Hollywood, where colorfully-dressed young Seminole men would shed their jackets and shoes and get in a pit with a gator, and wrestle it. The goals of the wrestler? Subdue and rope the gator’s mouth shut, or pry open the mouth and put his head inside. Scars were evident on the arms of most of these guys and a few had a digit or two missing.
It remains a popular spectator sport at the still-thriving alligator attractions, though the parks have modernized the other attractions there to appeal to a 21st century audience.
At Gatorland near Orlando they’ve added a zipline so you can fly across the gator pits and marshes attached to a thin cable. (It opens June 16.) You can see their exhibit of a white alligator (an albino version) like the one at the Palm Beach Zoo. At the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, it’s part zoo, and wild bird rookery, though alligators and crocodiles and everything you want to know about the reptiles are the focus of this attraction. It’s one of the oldest in the state (it opened in 1893), and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Alligator etiquette – and common sense
Like all wildlife, alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) don’t really want to mess with you. These huge reptiles (distinguished from their cousins, the crocodile, by a flat, rounded nose) want to eat, sleep and breed in peace. Once an endangered species, they’re now enjoying a comeback of great proliferation – they don’t have all that many enemies other than man once they grow big enough to make a difference.
Common sense prevails around areas where there are gators:
- Don’t feed them! They’re not pets and never will be domesticated. You’re as much dinner as what you’re feeding them – they can’t distinguish between the marshmallows and the wiggling hand that’s holding them. They have 70 or so teeth with which to make a toothful impression on you or tear off a limb or bite you in half. Their jaw pressure is impressive – they can bite through car doors and canoe hulls.
- Keep small dogs and kids well out of the way of gators or areas where gators live. They look like prey to them and gators will attack for food.
- Don’t dangle your legs and arms overboard in canoes or kayaks in lakes and canals. They can lunge out of the water up to five feet. They have an acute sense of vibration and hearing – they’ll come to what they believe is prey. They also have night vision, and hunt at night.
- Don’t get up close enough to “tickle” or torment one with a stick, or think you can outrun one. They are remarkably fast and can snap off an arm without you having a chance to move. They can run at speeds up to 30 mph on land, though only briefly and in a straight line. But they will attack on land, contrary to what some believe.
Bottom line: Take a camera with a long lens and appreciate them for what they are: Wild and unpredictable creatures.
Florida alligator attractions
Here are places to see alligators in captive and wild settings; at the Indian villages, you also can see them in the wild via airboat rides.
Alligator Farm and Zoological Park
- 999 Anastasia Blvd., St. Augustine
- 904-824-3337; www.alligatorfarm.us
Miccosukee Indian Village
- Mile Marker 70, US Highway 41 (Tamiami Trail), Miami
- 305-382-3920; www.miccosukeeresort.com
- 14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando
- 800-393-5297; gatorland.com
Everglades National Park
- 40001 S.R. 9336, Homestead
- 305-242-7700; nps.gov/everglades
Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail
All along the top of the dike built around Lake Okeechobee, you have a high vantage point overlooking either the lake or rim canals that harbor gators. Some are sizeable and can be found in large groups hanging out at the many locks or along the banks. They’re not ambitious enough to get up on the trail proper, but it’s so flat and without vegetation, you’ll see them readily if they do make the climb.
Get on the trail (cycle-and walker-friendly) at:
- Port Mayacca, junction of S.R. 76 and U.S. 441
- Pahokee, U.S. Hgys 441 and 98 at S.R. 76
- Belle Glade, at S.Rs. 880 and 715
- South Bay, at the boat ramps, S.R. 80 and U.S. 27
- Lake Harbor, at the locks at S. R. 80/U.S. 27 at Miami Canal Road
- Clewiston, at the locks off S.R. 80 and San Francisco Street
- Moorehaven, at the locks off Riverside Drive
- Lakeport, junction of S.R. 721 and S.R. 78
- Buckhead Ridge at the Okeetantie recreation area/campground, S.R. 78
- Okeechobee, at the public marina and pier, U.S. 441-North and S.R. 700
- Chancy Bay locks, on U.S. 441