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ECOVIEWS: How safe is it to water-ski around wild alligators

The following may be of interest to anyone who engages in outdoor activities around zsouthern rivers, lakes or reservoirs where alligators are known to live.

Q: I belong to a water ski association. We are venturing out again for community outings and have several questions about alligators. We don't bring pets, feed the gators or mess with them in any way, but some of us are still a bit anxious.

A: Your concerns are understandable and I hope I can allay some of the fears water-skiers might have. For starters, having an accident driving to your ski area or being bitten by a dog are thousands of times more likely than being attacked by an alligator.

Q: What size alligator is the greatest threat to someone in the water or on land?

A: Alligator babies, which begin hatching in late summer, can be the most dangerous size to find in the wild. Adult females, who may reach lengths up to 10 feet, will vigorously defend their young. A baby alligator may let someone walking along shore approach it, but when it is scared, it will start squeaking, calling its mother for protection. She will approach with her mouth open to frighten away the intruder. Usually, she will not continue her pursuit if the threat retreats. The behavior is perceived by people as highly aggressive. In reality, it is strictly a defensive maternal response. In any case, picking up a baby alligator is illegal.

Male alligators, who grow larger than females, are aggressive toward other males during mating season and perhaps at other times. I have never seen one threaten a person. It is conceivable that a territorial male alligator could mistake a swimmer for a competitor or invader and attack. Always be careful around large wild animals, as unexpected behaviors can occur.

One important point: Large alligators should be wary of the presence of humans where you are skiing or swimming. If they are not and one approaches the boat or swims toward a person in the water, be especially wary. Water-skiers in your group do not feed the gators, but other people might. Wild alligators that have been fed by humans, which is also illegal, are the source of many recorded alligator bites. As with other wild animals, alligators that have been fed may lose their wariness of people, but they are nonetheless wild and potentially dangerous.

Q: How would an alligator approach a skier in the water?

A: An alligator would approach on the surface if it thought it would receive food.

Q: What should one do if attacked by an alligator?

A: On land, back away and run. If you are in water, try to get to shore. As a last resort, fight back by hitting the animal in the face, although the effort may seem futile. I do not know how a mother gator would react to someone in the water, but they are generally near the nest, which is on shore. I assume a water-skier who ends up that close to the bank would have more immediate problems.

Q: Is water skiing near alligators just stupid?

A: I have worked around alligators on land and in water for many years and the only bites or bruises I have seen or personally experienced have resulted from attempting to catch the alligator. Although the bizarre is always possible with wild animals, I would not hesitate to water-ski merely because alligators were present.

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