Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Alligators and Competent Information

When I was a kid you pretty much never heard of alligators attacking humans. I was, of course, born in 1957 and grew up in the 60s and approached adulthood in the mid 70s.

During all this time the alligator was under real threat of extinction. This is amazing because, being exothermic predators, alligators are a type of predator that can live in vast numbers. An endothermic predator, because of the rate at which it burns calories, cannot also normally be very numerous because of the way it would tax an ecosystem's prey species. Alligators can eat a big critter and then sit around satiated and lazy for weeks and weeks--even months. Thus, their numbers can be vast.

I was a very well-read kid when I was growing up in this world wherein alligators were not very numerous. The reptiles had been hunted down to where you had to really go looking to find one. And all of the big ones were pretty much dead and gone. It was a world of small and medium-sized alligators. And I suppose because humans had forgotten what a truly large alligator was like, they became complacent. All of the literature I was consuming referred to them as "docile" and "harmless to humans". I ate that shit up.

These days, I am convinced that historical records showed very few alligator predation on humans to be rare or non-existent because for about a hundred years alligators were just mainly too damned small to look upon a human as something that could be easily taken and eaten. I believed that crap about gators just being sedate animals that consumed only turtles and fish, the occasional raccoon or even a young deer.

This is what I believed when--one sunny day--my pal Scott McGregor and I decided to sneak onto the Jekyll Island Golf Course and dive for golf balls in the ponds and lakes. Yes, we knew there were alligators in those ponds and lakes, but we dismissed any danger because those animals were "docile" and "harmless" as we'd both read and heard. We grabbed our burlap sacks, our snorkel gear, and away we went. We even took a couple of fishing tridents Scott's father had stored in their garage, which we could use to prod any curious alligator that might get on our nerves and crowd our personal space, dude.

For days we got away with it. We dove into the ponds and gathered, quite actually, thousands of lost golf balls. We would dive down to the bottom, and the floor of the lakes would be carpeted with what seemed like an endless horizon of pale dots sitting there at the surface of the muck. Sometimes we'd see alligators. Small ones from less than a foot long to some as big as four or five feet in length. We paid them almost no mind whatsoever.

After a few days, we realized that we'd cleaned out the smaller ponds. So we set our sights on the big lakes in the golf course. We headed across the course and marched to the biggest lake there. This was a real lake. Not a pond. Not something you could swim across in a minute or so, but a real, by-Jove lake. All we could think about were the vast thousands of golf balls we'd find and recover. (The course would pay us ten cents each for those things.)

As we walked down to the lake shore, the first thing that happened was that we frighted an alligator that was sunning itself on the grassy shore. It was an impressive beast. Easily seven feet long and solid.  I weighed 230 pounds at the time, and it appeared to be heavier than I was. However, its reaction backed up the literature of alligators being frightened of humans and eager only to avoid us. It vanished immediately into the big lake.

Without another thought we hit the water and began to bring up the golf balls. This was going to make us kings of the used golf ball business! At some point, though, I came up, standing in water about chest deep. I looked across the lake. On the far shore was an alligator I had not noticed before. He was huge. Nine feet, easy. Monstrous. Ponderous bulk. Jaw muscles like cast iron cannonballs standing in relief at the rear of that mammoth skull. And I got nervous.

"Hey, Scott."


"Let's take turns diving."


"I think maybe one of us should keep an eye on that big alligator while one dives. Just in case." Suddenly, the idea of prodding that monster with that pathetic fishing trident seemed like a joke.

"Okay," Scott said.

And I went back to retrieving golf balls, filling my burlap bag and seeing that carpet of golf balls stretching on beyond my sight into the the murky distance. After a few minutes of popping up now and again to draw air through my snorkel, I stood up. I was neck deep in lake water.

"Bob!" There was genuine concern in Scott's voice. He was scared, but safely near to shore in ankle-deep water.


"That big alligator. It's gone!"

"When did it go in the water?"

"I don't know. I wasn't paying attention for a while and when I looked back over, it was gone."

I backed toward shore a couple of steps. Then a few more steps until I was waist-deep in the lake. We stared hard, surveying the surface of the lake, searching for that monster.

And suddenly, maybe three feet from me, that alligator surfaced, his head and eyes and part of his armored back suddenly and totally revealed in complete silence.

Without so much as a "FUCK!" I backpedaled until I was safely on solid ground.

There he was. Easily nine or ten feet of top predator, called to action by our movement in his lake and the sounds of our idiotic splashing about in his watery matrix. He'd vanished from his post with no sound, had moved across the lake in silence, and had suddenly made his presence known to us with zero indication that he'd probably been watching me for some minutes floundering around on the bottom of his goddamned lake and looking at me and trying to decide if I might be something worth his while to kill and eat.

He was the big dog in that lake and he'd been sizing me up for caloric intake. Of that I have absolutely no doubt.

"Goddamn," I finally said. "Let's get the hell out of here."

We ended up selling the giant load of golf balls we'd already acquired over the course of three days of diving and cashed them in at ten cents apiece. We made out pretty good, netting a couple of hundred dollars each for our trouble.

I made out pretty good, too. Because I didn't end up being the first human in a long time to be killed and eaten by a big alligator.

These days, boys and girls, there are tens of thousands of alligators that big and larger. In these modern times, because we finally protected this glorious species, they have once again reached a point where they are big enough to think of Homo sapiens as a prey animal.

Be careful in those creeks and rivers and lakes. I know I will be.

This was about a five-footer we encountered on the Silver River in Florida. Not a real danger to someone like me, but big enough to take out a dog or a child.

This twelve-foot monster was in Rainbow Springs in Florida. I would not go swimming around a leviathan like this one.

Big enough to eat just about anything.

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