A little over a week ago, a sea turtle patrol volunteer searching for sea turtle tracks came across something different… alligator tracks. This is not something you see every day, the tracks of an animal who does not live in the Gulf… in the Gulf, but did happen and has happened in the past.
Your first reaction is… “My lord… an alligator… on Pensacola Beach… this is not what I bargain for”, when in fact alligators have always inhabited barrier islands along the Gulf of Mexico. They are freshwater animals, but there are freshwater ponds on the islands, and they do quite well there. Their ventures into the Gulf are usually triggered by the lack of some of these freshwater sources. Many of the ponds are ephemeral, and dry up during drought times. We have not had rain, until recently, for several weeks. Some alligators, usually the younger ones, venture out. They do enter the Gulf but have no way of desalinating seawater so eventually leave for “greener pastures”. This is when turtle patrol member Caroline Harper found and photographed the tracks of one. For reference, Caroline found them near the entrance gate to Ft. Pickens.
So should we be concerned about our vacation plans with alligators on the beach? No….
You know it is interesting that when we travel to other parts of the country we are both interested and concerned about seeing wildlife. Mountain lions in Colorado, grizzlies in Montana, rattlesnakes in Arizona, and I am sure there is something dangerous in Rhode Island – just cannot think of it at the moment, but travelers like to see wildlife – albeit some of them from a car. Elk in the Smoky Mountains have been quite a draw in recent years. Here in Florida, folks would love to see a dolphin, or sea turtle, or our icon the manatee (they have been spotted in the area recently). But they are also interested in capturing a glimpse of a panther, python, or our state reptile the alligator. I had a women ask me once – “where can I go to see an alligator? We are from New York and my five year old son wants to see an alligator”. You can imagine I was stumped for a moment; alligators are not as common here as they are in south Florida, and so to direct her to a best location was tough. However, I understand her situation. I myself have asked residents in Montana “where I can go to see a grizzly bear?’ with puzzled looks, I usually get suggestions. I have a bucket of wildlife I would like to see just like everyone else. I have checked off roadrunner and elk, bighorn sheep and bison, still have not seen a grizzly, and have on my list for this summer the western diamondback rattlesnake and saguaro cactus. Rattlesnake… whatever right? Everyone has their animal they have to see.
However with the more dangerous wildlife, there are cautions that must be taken, and this would include the rattlesnake. There are numerous reports of tourists out west trying to take selfies with bears – some did not end well. With the alligator, they have a natural fear of humans – we are trouble for them. I was recently paddling the Wakulla River and saw several alligators. When approached, and I would not approach one directly, the alligators will stop and hope you do not see them. If you continue past, they will submerge. This can be uncomforting to most paddlers, for now you do not know where they are. However, they are not stalking you from beneath. They seek out the deeper parts of the river and lie on the bottom hoping you go past. In the clear waters of the Wakulla, you could see them on the bottom trying to hide. Alligators become dangerous when they lose their fear of us, and this typically happens when humans have fed them. It is a felony in Florida to do so. With that thought, you should treat each alligator encounter cautiously. Observe and photograph from a distance. Do not approach them. They may think they are being stalked and could defend themselves.
Not everyone agrees, but I think having wildlife in the area is a good thing. Alligators swimming in the Gulf is not common, so no concerns about swimming. Honestly, alligators swimming in the Sound is not common either. It is cool to know they are around and to view one could be the highlight of your trip, you will certainly talk about it first when you get home.
So enjoy the sun and surf, and enjoy your “Wild Florida”.