Saturday, January 26, 2013

American Alligator - Florida

Three years ago I did a post on the alligator based on a trip to the Louisiana swamps in 2004. I recently visited the Everglades and the Saint Augustine Alligator Farm in Florida and had a different kind of alligator experience. In Louisiana, we primarily saw the alligators from swamp tour boats and our sight of them was fleeting. Even the views of the alligator that lived next to our rented cabin were limited as we only saw parts of its head pushing up through the swamp muck. In the Everglades, we were able to see the alligators unmediated by boats, tour operators and muck. We visited the Anhinga Trail three different times, two late afternoons and one morning, and saw many alligators in many different ways. My favorite alligator experience involved a mother alligator and her babies. We spotted them just off the main road, right before the turn-off to the Anhinga Trail. She was submerged in water in a small pond near a culvert. Thirty or more babies were behind her, primarily mixed in among the swamp grass. 
Mother alligator and babies
From a distance the babies had the appearance of squirming caterpillars as they moved about en mass, climbing up and over each other. 
Baby alligators
As we got closer and watched for awhile, we were able to single out various babies 
and watch their movements 
and hear their cute little grunts and squeaks. 
As we left the Everglades for the last time, we stopped for one last look, perhaps the fourth time we'd stopped to watch this same drama, and found momma gator out of the water, the first time we'd seen much more of her than her head. 
Just about thirty yards away, another slow-paced drama unfolded. The setting was another, slightly larger pond, just off the main road. The star was a larger, solitary gator, who never moved while we watched him. 
He was the first alligator we saw in the park. What was fun was that he was out of the water and we could get quite close and examine him from different angles. The protruding knobs on the back, arranged in parallel rows, contrast with the squared, or diamond shaped scales on the arms and legs 
and the rounded scales on the sides of the belly and lower jaw.
We never saw him move during the four times we stopped to look at him, but he was always in a slightly different spot each time, so we know he did move. The last time we stopped he was in the water for the first time, while just thirty yards away, momma gator (described above) was out of the water for the first time. I love the changing shape of the alligator as it varies in contrast to the setting. Often you will see just the eyes, 
or the top of the head and the snout, 
as they lie motionless, mostly beneath the water. At other times they look segmented as select portions of their body emerge above the water line, 
or like one long continuous, thin, knobby line.
The rippling of the water, 
the glint of the sun, 
and the merged and submerged portions of the alligator 
all provide wonderful viewing contrasts.  When the alligator swims, it tucks its arms and legs next to its body and wriggles through the water, much like a swimming salamander. I love the patterns that are emphasized by the water covering. The view below reminds me of the dinosaur fossils found in the mountainside near Vernal, Utah. Click on the picture and give it a close view. 
The morning we visited, we were greeted by beautiful January sunshine which illuminated the green plant surroundings and provided a beautiful setting for the starring gators.
It also caused the many of the alligators to leave the water and congregate on shore for some prime time basking. The view from one overlook nearly took my breath away as we found about 18 alligators all congregated in a very small area. 
The scene was not much different than the large alligator pond I'd seen in the Saint Augustine Alligator Farm a few days earlier, except that this was occurring naturally in the wild.  We even got some drama as alligators approached birds 
and we saw the birds cautiously move away. 
We did see feathers which provided evidence that the birds are not always so fortunate. Finally, I went to the Saint Augustine Alligator Farm on a whim and was so happy that I did. There I heard a chorus of what sounded like large African lions growling. There, in their large alligator enclosure, numerous alligators were raising their heads, raising their tails, 
and pushing air out of their mouths 
in a series of grunts that sound amazingly like a roar. It was very loud, very deep, very throaty and very fun. This You Tube video catches a series of these grunts and is worth listening to. Can you imagine being alone in the swamp on a dark night and not absolutely being terrified by that sound? I gained a new appreciation and love for alligators. I would love to go back and spend some more time in the Everglades.

Updated: February 2014

I did make it back to Florida and managed to see some more gators. I visited Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge near the Kennedy Space Center and saw lots of alligators along some canals. The alligators were either on the side or on little islands in the water, sunning themselves, and there were some very large gators.
From the Black Point Wildlife Drive in Merritt Island NWR. This large alligator is sunning on a small island in the canal.
A close-up of the same alligator above.
Another alligator in the same canal.
An alligator off the canal on Biolab Road in Merritt Island NWR.
Close-up of the same alligator above. Another big one.
I visited Shark Valley in Everglades National Park. I saw lots and lots of alligators, more than anywhere else I've visited, by far. But the tram I took was not ideal for taking photos. I did get a few pictures when I walked part of the way back down the tram road. 
This smaller alligator is partly submerged. I love how the water distorts the view.
This was an unusual view, perhaps the only time I saw an alligator with its mouth open. They do have impressive teeth.


  1. I'm impressed. Few people can work the word "cute" ("cute little grunts and squeaks") into a post about alligators.

    1. Even Judy called them cute, so it is not just my sick nature.

  2. I was under your influence at the time, Bob. With a bit more perspective, I might have to agree with Chris. I would call 30 alligator babies an amazing spectacle, however.