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Canoeing & Kayaking™

Paddling with Alligators
by Al Vazquez

Almost everyone new to paddling waters with alligators has the same primal fear of an attack. Yet the statistics of alligator attacks seem to show that it can be done relatively safely, as long as the paddler follows a few protocols. So I wanted to share the benefit of my years of experience as a Florida paddler kayaking and canoeing by hundreds of alligators.
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I Feel Safer Paddling by Alligators than Driving

Doing most of my paddling in Florida, I've encountered hundreds of alligators of all sizes on the water. And the bottom line is that I've had many more close calls driving than I've had paddling around alligators or "gators".

 

Typical Alligator Behavior Around Paddlers

Over time, I've grown to enjoy seeing alligators while kayaking as I've become familiar with their typical behaviors. I also appreciate seeing them as a barometer of the health of our streams and of water quality as development encroaches around us and reduces their habitat.

On the narrower streams I love to paddle, the typical behavior of gators I've seen repeatedly is for them to slip into the water when paddlers approach. That makes sense, because they probably feel more protected from us underwater. So slipping into the water is typically not aggression, but just the opposite; a defensive action they take because they probably view a paddler as a potential threat to them. Gators in more remote areas less visited by man seem to enter the water faster than those that see people and paddlers more frequently. On the relatively natural section of the Peace River between Zolfo Springs and Gardener, we saw 23 alligators as we approached but were never able to get the camera ready quickly enough before they slid underwater as soon as they sensed our approach.

I've only been approached on the surface by a couple of gators that had obviously been fed and accustomed to humans. (Never feed alligators.) And even when these abnormal gators approached, fortunately they stopped and kept their distance waiting for food once they got closer. Still, beware of any gator that approaches you on the surface as that's not typical defensive behavior. I would paddle cautiously away from the area and avoid them.

 

Great Memories Paddling with Gators

Many gator encounters are great paddling memories. On one of the most pristine streams in Florida, Fisheating Creek, a small gator slid into the water ahead of us as two of us approached in a large tandem kayak. Realizing it was in a shallow, narrow part of the stream, the gator started swimming frantically ahead of us to escape the "threat". We slowed our paddling and enjoyed watching it continue to swim away from us in front of the boat for a couple of minutes until it was able to reach a deep water pool and hide on the bottom; not the behavior of a typically aggressive reptile.

Paddling the northern Everglades in the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refugee , we had several memorable encounters with gators. As we launched our kayaks, we saw a gator leap 3 feet out of the water to snatch a large bird from a branch just 50 feet away on the opposite shore.

Seeing that was disconcerting at the beginning of a paddle. Yet on the water a little later, we paddled right beside cute baby gators not more than a foot long (photo at right). And gator mom who was no doubt nearby did not bother us at all.

Lessons Learned

So the lesson I took away is that gators could certainly be deadly to paddlers if they wanted to be, but they typically try to avoid paddlers.

Some advice on paddling near gators is:
- Never feed alligators
- Don't get too close nor harass alligators
- Don't corner alligators
- Stay away from potential alligator areas during mating season in spring when they become more territorial
- Don't take small children nor small creatures like pets near areas with alligators

Finally, beware that alligators behave very differently than crocodiles. Crocodiles are extremely dangerous to paddlers and have attacked and killed paddlers without warning or provocation. Crocodiles are common in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. And there are crocodiles in south Florida and the Everglades, though they are not nearly as common as alligators. Avoid paddling in areas with crocodiles.

 

Appreciate Alligators

Enjoy and appreciate alligators as a wonderful window to our past natural history; a time when reptiles ruled as dinosaurs.

I hope my experiences help you enjoy these wonderful reptiles as time goes by. They are another beautiful aspect of our great sport of paddling.

Al Vazquez
February 2008