A cautionary tale…
In August of this year we took a camping trip to the coastal wetlands in southeastern Texas. I was very excited to see the coastal marshes and I really wanted to get the kayaks out in the wetlands and see what that was all about. My hope was to see some great marsh birds and perhaps an alligator or two.
Southeastern United States, including southeast Texas is home to the American alligator. An animal that once was endangered due to the popularity of alligator skin bags, now has numbers in the millions. This animal is one of the success stories of the Endangered Species Act, originally listed in 1967 to the predecessor of the ESA, and recovering enough to be delisted in 1987. Animals generally don’t frighten me but I must admit that of all the animals in the world, I am afraid of the alligator and it’s cousin the crocodile. They give the illusion of being slow and not aware of their surroundings, when that couldn’t be any further from the truth. They have excellent eyesight and are patient, and fast as lightning. What scares me most is how they often look completely sluggish and then out of nowhere will attack their victim with precision.
Being more of a birder and plant person as a naturalist, I decided I should do a little research on the American alligator if I was going to kayak in their turf. From what I had found on the internet, boating and kayaking with them was deemed safe if you didn’t provoke them and it wasn’t mating season. (You know… mama’s watching out for babies and males watching out for territories.) I even watched a YouTube video of some guy in a kayak paddling around a small lake in east Texas scaring alligators off shore into the water to hide. The animals seemed intimidated by the kayak. The point that he was trying to make was, alligators didn’t really want to attack you, they weren’t usually aggressive with adult humans and they really just wanted to be out of your way. So I thought it should be safe for us to kayak with them at Sea Rim State Park, especially since there was a state park designated paddling trail at the place we were going. I accepted this with more trust than I should have. Yeah… I probably should have done more research.
We drove out to Sea Rim State Park on the Texas and Louisiana border and set up camp. Once we had gotten settled in, we took our kayaks to the put in spot on the marshy side of the park, and started off on the paddling trail. It was a humid day and mosquitoes hovered around us like our own personal entourage as we made it through the narrow paddle way. The grasses on each side of the water were tall and impenetrable, birds flitted from the tops of the grasses across the water way. The sky was slightly overcast and the morning was still cool. It was a beautiful morning.
My husband at one point says “See those little pair of bumps there. They just moved. Wouldn’t it be funny if that was an alligator?”
I said calmly “It probably is.”
He looked at me like “You better be kidding.” I had neglected to tell him before hand that alligators in the water were a high possibility.
I responded “I’m not kidding.”
He looked around and then said “I see those bumps everywhere, we’re surrounded.”
Now granted those bumps we saw weren’t very big. It looked like there was just a bunch of juvenile alligators in the paddle way, and what we were seeing where their eyes right above water. Armed with the information I got from the “kayak YouTube video” I was not afraid. Unfazed and confident I said “Let’s keep going.”
We did. We kept paddling and watching the eyes disappear as we got closer to them just as I imagined they would. Eventually the paddle trail turned off into a lake which a park ranger had told us would be a good place to paddle. He said it would be important to stay along the shoreline to avoid strong currents in the lake. What he neglected to say was that we should probably steer clear of floating vegetation in the lake which is near the shoreline. This, I learned the hard way, is where the alligators like to hang out and hide waiting for potential food to swim by. So there we are paddling around this lake in these small sit on top, 8 foot kayaks that have us riding barely off the water, going along the shoreline straight through the vegetation. At one point I thought I felt a bump underneath the kayak but didn’t think much of it as I kept going. We were halfway around the lake when my paddle hit something big and that something moved very quickly and bumped underneath the boat. I yelped. The kayak shimmied on the water and for a brief moment and I thought I was going to fall off of the kayak. Just when I thought I had everything settled again, Something bumped the other side of the kayak and I briefly saw a tail. I yelped again as the boat became unstable for a second time. All of my fears that we’re at rest came flooding back. Yeah maybe alligators aren’t aggressive to adult humans naturally, but what if they get hit on the head by a kayak paddle and then that adult human falls in the water in front of them, flailing like dinner? That probably gives them ample excuse to eat your head, I thought.
After a few seconds, stability returned to the kayak and it seemed the alligator was gone. But I still had a half of a very large lake to get around and I could feel my heart beating through my chest and my hands were shaking. Mentally I knew that everything was fine, but my body wasn’t buying it. It was a long slog around the lake. I did my best to avoid all the vegetation and try not to get pulled into the center by the lake current. As I was fighting the current back to the takeout spot I was thinking that nature does not read the guide books, nor does it feel any loyalty to follow guidelines of what is safe and what is not. I felt very small. I know that the incident ended up being just a scare as my kayak ran over a surprised gator, but I was a fool not to be more cautious around these animals. We got to the take out spot and a green heron welcomed us back to the dock. I think I heard him call me an idiot under his breath.
The next morning at camp I ran into a boy about 10 years old who told me that the night before an alligator started to approach him until the boy’s bigger brother and parents joined him, which made the animal rethink his life choices and return to the water. The kid also told me about a group of fishermen from the night before, who were trying to catch blue crab with chicken necks. Instead of catching crab they were attracting alligators, who thought a dinner of chicken necks sounded pretty darn good. The fishermen were smacking alligators on the head with boat paddles to try and get the alligators to let go of their bait. Which seemed really dumb to me. If you throw raw meat on a string into a body of water with alligators in it, how are they supposed to know it’s not for them? This just makes them associate food with people.
Anyway I digress, at that moment it also occurred to me why alligators make me very nervous. They are opportunistic, which means you need to keep an eye on them at all times.
When I got back home, I did some thinking about the experience and what I would do differently in the future.
1. Even if you do your research on the animal, you don’t know the specific individuals you are dealing with. For example, these gators were accustomed to equating humans with food. So… always be cautious and assess each situation differently when coming into contact with predators.
2. Steer away from floating vegetation and debris in the water as that is where alligators like to hide.
3. Keep your calm. Panicking is what caused my boat to waver more than it should have. Falling out of the kayak, could very well have met with a bad result
4. I would report the incident of the fishermen and bait to rangers. Texas Parks and Wildlife advises that if you are fishing and an alligator grabs your bait, cut the line and move somewhere else. Feeding alligators, even if it is bait is a class C misdemeanor carrying a fine up to $500 and it creates dangerous alligators.
5. I would also report the incident with the gator approaching the child. This is what happens when alligators lose fear of people and associate people with food. This also means that this alligator is in danger himself of becoming labeled a “nuisance” animal, which means he would be exterminated for the safety of the park guests.
Given all the drama I just whipped up, I do want to say that alligators are impressive animals and if you have a safe opportunity to witness these animals in the wild, I highly recommend it.
See ya later alligator!**
Sources / for further reading:
**(sorry I couldn’t help it)