Everything You Need to Know About Alligators in the Sunshine State
One of the most common questions Floridians get from our out-of-state friends and relatives is about our most famous native reptiles: the American Alligator. Sure, we have bears, panthers and giant snakes, but Florida is rather well known for its local dinosaur descendent and rightly so.
Every Florida visitor wants to know:
- Is it safe to swim in Florida?
- Are alligators really in every body of water?
- How big do alligators get?
- What’s the best way to see an alligator in the wild?
Rapid population growth and development of natural habitats has certainly made alligator encounters a more frequent occurrence in Florida than ever before. Plus, alligators were on the endangered species list and the program was so successful that now there are more than enough to go around.
About Alligators in Florida
Adult alligators eat fish, birds, small mammals, snakes and turtles – humans are not on their radar as prey.
Facts about Florida Alligators
- American Alligators can live 30-50 years in the wild.
- Alligators regularly hold their breath for 30-60 minutes, but can stay submerged up to 24 hours if need be. So just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there!
- The largest gator ever captured in Florida was a 14 foot, 3-1/2 inch male from Lake Washington in Brevard County.
- Alligators are good climbers and have been known to scale chain link fences in their paths.
- It’s illegal to feed, harass or kill alligators. Only those with a specific permit from Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission are allowed to harvest them.
- Alligators can be found all over the southeast and as far west as Oklahoma/east Texas.
Alligator Attacks in Florida
There’s good news and bad news. In Florida, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than to be attacked by an alligator. The bad news is, lightning strikes are no walk in the park either.
According to a story on CNN.com, “The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission notes that even though the state averages about seven unprovoked alligator attacks per year – a rate that has been increasing about 3% a year – the likelihood of being seriously injured in a random attack is roughly one in 2.4 million.”
You are far more likely to encounter trouble with mosquitoes, bees, hornets, spiders or even COWS than an alligator or even a shark in Florida. Mooo.
How to Escape an Alligator Attack
If an alligator clocks you and you can see it moving toward you, get out of there as fast as you can. Make a ton of noise and run like your life depends on it. Zigzag or run in a straight line – but don’t worry too much about that. JUST RUN.
It’s far better to be on dry land – gators can run quite fast, but not for too long. So if you can hightail it out of the water and put some distance between you and the alligator, you will likely win. The same can’t be said if you are fighting the gator on his turf in the water, where the force of a bite will stun you long enough to be dragged under water. Not an easy situation to escape.
Where to See Alligators in Florida
The Alligator Farm
Did you know the word alligator is an anglicized form of el lagarto, the Spanish term for “lizard,” which the Spanish settlers in Florida called the alligator? You can see hundreds of these creatures at St. Augustine’s Alligator Farm and Zolo
The further south you go, the more likely you’ll catch a glimpse of a gator baking in the sun on the banks of a canal or even just lounging on the side of I-95.
While you can spot these dinosaurs all over the state, in nearly every body of water, the best place for gator peeping is the Everglades National Park, where you can take a bike ride on the Shark Valley Loop off the Tamiami Trail. If that sounds a little too risky, you can take a tram or an airboat for the ride of your life, or just drive down Alligator Alley, a long stretch of highway traversing the southern part of the peninsula. You’re almost guaranteed to see gators!
Kayaking or Canoeing in the Headwaters of the Florida Everglades
The headwaters of the Florida Everglades begin at Shingle Creek near Kissimmee, Florida, flowing through Lake Tohopekaliga (nicknamed Lake Toho) and past bald eagles, osprey, herons, deer and of course, the American Alligator.
Our favorite way to get up close and personal with Florida’s wildest residents is by boat. You can hop on an airboat at Boggy Creek Airboat Adventures (watch us do it!) or take a guided kayak tour with The Paddling Center on Shingle Creek. The kayak experience gives you a chance to meander through still and silent cypress forests, encountering gorgeous birds, curious turtles and possibly even alligators if you’re lucky. Remember, they’re more scared of you than you are of them, so observe safely from a distance.
Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Ok, ok. Perhaps it’s not the kind of Florida gator you had in mind. But there’s nothing like a trip to Gainesville to really feel the chomp of the world famous University of Florida Gator spirit.
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Alligator Safety Tips for Florida
Don’t Feed the Alligators
The No. 1 rule of alligator safety is an easy one. First of all, feeding gators is illegal in Florida, so that’s a pretty good reason not to do it.
As a rule, alligators are very shy and avoid human interaction as much as possible. Exceptions would include alligators that have become accustomed to being fed by people. It goes without saying that feeding an alligator is a bad idea. It teaches them to lose their natural fear of people. If it doesn’t go badly for you, it’s very likely that interaction will train the gator to seek out humans for food in the future. That’s not an experience you want to pay forward!
Heed Warning Signs
Alligators aren’t super particular about where they live, and Floridians know that any body of water in the Sunshine State is fair game, from brackish rivers to freshwater springs to the salty Atlantic Ocean to retention ponds in parking lots and even swimming pools on occasion. That said, if someone went to the trouble to put up a NO SWIMMING or BEWARE OF ALLIGATOR sign, you’d be smart to pay attention. Some waterways are more attractive to gators than others, and some gators are de-sensitized to human presence. These are the ones you absolutely want to avoid – and they could be the very aggressive gators the signs are warning you about.
Swim During the Day
Alligators feed at night, so your best bet is to swim during the day. For what it’s worth, the advice is the same for sharks.
Don’t Swim Alone
The more people there are around, the less likely there are to be gators nearby. It would be a shock indeed to see an alligator swimming around the weekend crowds at Ginnie Springs. And hey, as long as you’re not the slowest swimmer in the group, you have nothing to worry about.
Don’t Swim in Areas of High Vegetation
Truthfully, alligators can be anywhere in a body of water, but they tend to hunt and hide in areas with lush greenery. Lily pads, long water grasses, weeds and algae are better avoided – head for open water.
Keep Your Pets Away from the Water
Dogs are a much easier target for alligators than humans, as they resemble the prey they stalk on the banks. If you’re bringing pets to Florida, keep them away from bodies of water until you’re more familiar with the water’s inhabitants. If you see other locals and their pups swimming, then chances are you’re ok. But best keep the pups away at least 10 feet away from waterways.
Look for the Telltale Signs that a Gator Lives Nearby
Watch for large indentations in the mud or flattened areas in the marsh grass as indicators of an alligator in residence. During summer nesting season, you may also spot mounds between 2-4 feet high on the banks. Stay away from these nests for prime alligator safety.
Beware the Baby Gator
If you come across a juvenile gator zig-zagging through the water or sunning on a branch, chances are there’s a big mama nearby. Back away slowly before things get dangerous. Alligators fiercely protect their young and a tiny kayak or stand-up paddle board is no match for a big mad mama gator.
Maintain a Safe Distance
Even if you’re careful, you may run into an alligator or two on your visit, particularly if you’re kayaking or boating. Don’t test how close you can get to the alligator. Don’t poke it with your paddle. Don’t throw Cheetos at it. Just maintain a safe distance – 10 feet is the bare minimum. Remember, gators have explosive speed and they’re great jumpers. Are you?
Remember: you are not Steve Irwin. Though it might seem like a hoot to ride a 12-foot alligator, it’s almost certainly a death sentence for the gator. (And maybe for you…)
American Alligators in Florida are surprisingly benign if you follow these rules and steer clear of each other. Alligator safety is surprisingly easy to manage if you just pay attention and keep your distance. Images sourced from Canva.
PIN THIS ALLIGATOR SAFETY GUIDE FOR YOUR TRIP TO FLORIDA