When I invite someone new to go paddling with me, they often respond with fear and anxiety in their voice: “Will there be alligators in the water?” There are alligators in almost every body of water in all 67 Florida counties, so the answer is always yes. However, unlike crocodiles in Africa and Australia, alligators are shy and skittish and disappear at the sound of people approaching. Alligators in Florida have killed only 17 people since 1948. Why then, do alligators have a bad reputation?
People and kayaks are also far too big for alligators to consider as prey. Your pets on the other hand, are the perfect size. Do no take your dog paddling or camping with you. I cannot emphasize this enough. Do not do it.
Gators live in nearly every body of water. They tolerate poor-quality water and so in addition to lakes, ponds, and rivers, they can be found in drainage canals, phosphate-mine settling ponds, and ditches. They are also salt tolerant (to a point) and inhabit brackish marshes along the coast.
During the hiking season of November – March, the cold temperatures leave alligators in a sluggish hibernation-like state. When spring arrives and warm temperatures return, they become active again. Males seek out females around May, and often leave one body of water for another in their search. This wandering brings them into contact with people more frequently, and one is more likely to end up in a suburban backyard during this time than any other month. During mating season, males bellow and you may be fortunate enough to hear it but will likely never see it. Their shyness keeps them from performing when people are watching.
Females build nests and lay eggs in late June-July. If you approach a nest, the female may charge at you to scare you away. Eggs hatch about 70 days after laying, so baby gators start showing up in late August-September. Babies make a chirping noise and if you hear it, the mother is always nearby. Do not disturb or approach the babies, because the mother will defend them.
Basic facts for coexisting with alligators
This strange hazard to paddlers and boaters exists only on the Suwannee River below Fanning Springs. During March and April, thousands of Gulf Sturgeon, a prehistoric and endangered fish, migrate from the Gulf of Mexico to spawn. While in the river, they like to jump out of the water. Mullet jump from the water too, but sturgeon can grow up 8 feet long and weigh 200 pounds, so they have the potential to knock someone unconscious.
There are about a dozen warning signs on the river where sturgeon are known to jump. The area around Manatee Springs seems to experience the most sturgeon jumping. They usually return to the Gulf in October.
Why are slow, gentle manatees on the same list as alligators and sharks? Because unlike alligators and sharks, they can collide with your kayak and capsize you.
Ever vigilant alligators dive underwater when a kayak or boat approaches, and sharks simply ignore kayaks, but it is possible to paddle right over a manatee without their knowledge. I did this once by accident in shallow water, and when I realized I was over a manatee, I stopped paddling, hoping I could drift past without it noticing. It became aware of me moments later and panicked, kicking its tail as hard as it could to get away. It then collided with my kayak, heaving me into the air, and I almost capsized. Had I capsized, I would have been in the water with a very large, very scared animal. After this experience, I was careful to keep my distance but in dark water, it is possible to be above a manatee and not know it. Manatees on Florida’s east coast seem to be more skittish than those on the Gulf coast, but caution should be taken either way.
Observe and photograph manatees from a respectful distance. Never approach or feed a manatee—it is bad for the manatee and illegal.
While paddling the Keys, Dan and I saw hundreds of small Portuguese man-of-war floating with the current. With their iridescent blue gas bag, they are impossible to confuse with other jellyfish. The best way not to get stung is not to touch them. If you do, they have long tentacles that wrap around you, hold tight, and cause painful red welts.
You're in a kayak of course, not swimming in the water, so why would you come in contact with one? Dead man-of-war wash up on the beach, as do detached tentacles, and the venom in these dead animals is as potent as a live creature in the water.
If you are stung, the welts normally last 2 or 3 days, though the pain should subside after an hour. Immerse the affected area in salt water or hot water. Do not apply vinegar. That is an old wives' tale.
As I prepared for my circumnavigation of Florida, many people expressed concern about sharks. Since sharks mistake California surfers for seals, some of my friends worried that in a kayak, I too would be mistaken for prey and attacked by sharks. However, Florida waters lacks large mammals like seals and the sharks that prey on them. Even in such waters, a shark has never attacked a kayak, except for one incident in Australia in 2008.
You may have read that New Smyrna Beach, Florida is the shark attack capital of the world. This may technically be true, but it is misleading. My understanding is that in New Smyrna, black-tipped sharks frequent the cut that connects the Atlantic with the intra-coastal waterway. There are also many swimmers on the nearby beach, and so sharks take test bites of swimmers’ legs. These “hit-and-run” attacks are never fatal. Sharks patrol these man-made cuts throughout Florida, and you should never swim in or near them.
News reports about great whites, hammerheads, and bull sharks are hyped-up scaremongering. Ignore the carnival barkers that fill the news. Checkout the pdf about Florida sharks below (courtesy of NOAA’s partnership program with universities, Sea Grant) and consider yourself lucky if you see a shark while paddling.
As paddlers, we should be stewards of the environment and work with law enforcement to protect Florida's wild animals. To report orphaned, injured, or dead manatees, sea turtles, and dolphins, as well as hunting or fishing out of season, and any other violation of the law, call 888-404-FWCC (3922).
Click on the seal to the right to visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website and learn how to report sightings of Right Whales, a found avian tag, debris in coral reefs, fish kills, and other information.