Sunday, December 20, 2009

Alligators (and me)

When I was a very young kid and living in southern Georgia, I recall that those days saw the greatest wane of the alligator population. If you wanted to see one, you generally had to go to a place like a state park. In most other locations they were all but extinct. They'd been hunted pretty much to death wherever such hunting could not be regulated (or stopped).

As I got older and protections for alligators were enforced, the populations quickly rebounded. By the time I was in my early 20s, one could encounter the big critters just about everywhere there was an open stretch of fresh or brackish water. They were all over the place.

Another thing that was believed in those days was that alligators were pretty much harmless when it came to humans. There were, of course, alligator attacks recorded in books and newspaper articles. But these were considered strange and isolated occurrences. I read the popular ideas on the subject and bought into them. There was nothing, really, to be afraid of when it came to alligators. They just didn't look upon people as food.

In fact, I went through a brief period during which I earned some extra spending cash by diving for golf balls in various golf courses on Jekyll Island, Georgia. My pal Scott and I would walk onto the golf course with our snorkels and burlap sacks and take turns diving into the lakes to retrieve the lost balls. Our only tip of the hat to alligators was that we would carry small tridents with us (yes, somehow Scott actually owned a couple of real tridents) to push gators in the snout if one were to happen to get too close. And, a couple of times, we'd take turns watching for the reptiles while one of us dove for golf balls.

At times, the alligators would get relatively close to us. But mainly they'd swim away as soon as we walked up to the lakes and went into their water. The stories I'd read about the critters seemed to be true, reinforcing my impression of the big, cold-blooded galoots.

Over the course of a couple of weeks, Scott and I worked our way through the course, emptying the lakes of their treasure. Eventually, we got to a particularly large lake on the back nine. This one, we knew. would be the motherload of golf balls. As we hiked to the lake shore on that initial trip, we were greeted by a blur of motion and a huge splash. We looked down just in time to see a really large alligator racing into the lake.

"Damn," I said. "How big do you suppose he is?" I asked Scott.

"Nine feet, easy," he said. "I think we should take turns watching."

I agreed.

As I waded into the water to start diving, Scott called out to me and pointed across the lake. He was indicating an even larger alligator on the opposite bank. It was sunning itself on the verge of the shore. "Damn," he said. "Ten or eleven feet, at least. Maybe bigger," he added.

"Just let me know if you see him head this way." And then I was under water.

The lake was packed with golf balls. This was, indeed, the mother load. The entire floor of the lake was a carpet of untouched golf balls just waiting for us to harvest them. I started grabbing them as fast as I could and jamming them into the sack. After a few minutes I stood up on the soft bottom of the lake, my shoulders breaking the surface. Scott's voice came immediately to me.



"That alligator. The big one. He's gone! I turned away for a second and he just wasn't there anymore!"

I froze and began to scan the water. Indeed, the big gator was no longer at his post on the shore on the far side of the lake. "Where do you think he went?" I said.

And no sooner had those words passed my lips than the alligator bobbed to the surface of the water about five feet in front of me.

"Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck," I said.

"Get out," Scott hissed.

He didn't need to say a thing, of course, and I quickly backed out of the lake. I was never so happy to feel solid earth beneath my feet.

"Let's get the hell out of here," I said. Scott agreed, and we never returned.

Looking back on my brief career as a golf ball thief, I realize that we were very lucky not to have become an intriguing statistic in a book of human/wildlife conflicts. That last alligator was, indeed, a monster--probably 500 pounds or more. Either of us would certainly have been nothing more than a victim if it had chosen to attack.

I also believe that those books and articles I'd read about the relative harmlessness of alligators were pretty much correct. But they were based on flawed evidence. The fact is that humans had killed off the largest of the alligators in the South. There just weren't very many large gators left. That is...the kind of animal that was so big that a 150 or 200 pound human would be a meal. The alligators that were ten, twelve, fifteen feet in length just weren't there to attack us.

But guess what?

Now they are here. The waterways are full of huge alligators. These reptiles are big enough now so that a fully grown human is nothing more than an attractive target.

Look for more people to get et.

I like this photo because it isn't exaggerated by false perspective. It's just two guys, a pickup truck, and really big humping alligator.

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