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Stalking Florida Alligators

My wife and I were traveling along the coast in northern Florida, alligators were the furthest thing from our minds. We had just paid $23 to camp in our conversion van at a beautiful state park on the beach the night before, and saw a dolphin swimming near shore in the morning. Then we heard that we could camp for free at several of the isolated campgrounds which dotted the Apalachicola National Forest. Our frugality sent us into alligator country.

We stayed two nights in the dark woods next to the dark waters of some slow river. Our only company was an old guy who seemed to be living there, and a nice couple with their two-year-old daughter. Lester was from England, Kari from Texas, and Indya was born in Guatamala. They met in India, of course. Our little group sat around the fire at night, trading stories, and occasionally running down to the water with the flashlights to look for the eyes of Florida alligators. We heard loud noises and splashes in the night, but saw nothing.

Florida Alligators
Alligators Enjoying the Sun

Lake Talquin

When we discovered that it was free to stay at Williams Landing, on Lake Talquin, we all moved up there for a week. The hot showers are what convinced us. Again we traded stories around the fire each night, but this time we saw all kinds of wildlife. Armadillos walked through camp, and giant gray herons fished offshore from the van. There were raccoons, owls, squirrels, ducks, frogs and turtles. Then there was the "monster."

March is a great time to get out in the woods in Florida, so I was poking around near a corner of the lake, when I heard the splash. There were no fish big enough to make that much noise. We had already seen two small alligators sunning themselves the day before. This one had to be a giant. My wife Ana wanted to see it, so we returned the next morning. Again we heard the splash, and it was under the water before we could see it.

Over the coming days, we visited the monster each morning when the sun was high enough for him to come out and soak up the heat. We caught enough glimpses of it to know that it was at least ten feet long, and Kari and Lester made a "Crocodile Hunter"-style movie of us searching for it. In time, it no longer panicked, but just slowly lowered itself into the water, as if getting ready to hunt us properly. We stopped trying to get so close to it.

Florida Alligators

Here is some advice from the Florida Fish And Wildlife Conservation Commission. It is a good idea to read this before you go looking for alligators. As it is, we may have been breaking the law with our daily visits to see Wally Gator.

Leave alligators alone. State law prohibits people from killing, harassing, molesting or attempting to move alligators. The potential for being bitten or injured by a provoked alligator is high.

Closely supervise children when playing in or around water. Never allow small children to play by themselves near water.

Don't swim outside of posted swimming areas or in waters that might contain large alligators. Swim only during daylight hours. Alligators most actively feed at dusk, dawn or at night.

Don't allow pets to swim, exercise or drink in waters not known to be free of alligators or in designated swimming areas with humans. Dogs suffer many more attacks than humans, probably because dogs more closely resemble natural prey items of large alligators. Alligators are more likely to attack small animals than larger ones.

Never remove any alligators from their natural habitat or accept one as a pet. It is a violation of state law to do so. Alligators do not become tame in captivity and handling even small ones may result in bites.

Enjoy viewing and photographing wild alligators. Remember, they're an important part of Florida's natural history, as well as an integral component of many freshwater ecosystems.

Seek immediate medical attention if you are bitten by an alligator. Alligators harbor a very infectious bacteria, and even minor bites may require special treatment.

Never feed or entice alligators - it's dangerous and illegal. Alligators overcome their natural shyness and become accustomed or attracted to humans when fed.

Inform others that feeding alligators is a violation of state law and that by feeding alligators, people create problems for others who want to use the water for recreational purposes.

Dispose of fish scraps in garbage cans at most boat ramps or fish camps. Although you are not intentionally feeding alligators when you dispose of fish scraps in water, the end result can be the same -- feeding.

In Florida, increasing numbers of people and abundant alligator populations have led to a progressive rise in the number of alligator-related complaints.

Although the majority of the problems with alligators relate to their being in places where they aren't wanted, a small number tragically involve alligator attacks. The FWC removes more than 5,000 alligators per year to reduce opportunities for such occurrences. Through the removal of these alligators and increased awareness on the part of the public, the number of alligator attacks that occur annually has remained constant in spite of the increased potential for alligator-human interaction.

Alligators are an important part of Florida's heritage and play an important role in the ecology of Florida's wetlands. An understanding of these facts and broader knowledge of alligator behavior helps ensure that humans and alligators continue their long-term coexistence.

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