With 1.3 million alligators living in the Sunshine State, gator sightings in Florida are as plentiful as salt in the Atlantic.
Florida’s official state animal may be the endangered Florida panther, but there’s no living creature who embodies the Sunshine State’s wild spirit more than the alligator. Protected under the Endangered and Threatened Species Rule, Florida’s American alligator population has experienced a boom in the last three decades. With hunting of alligators highly regulated and many of their habitats protected, it’s now a common occurrence for humans to spend some time—at a safe distance—with these mostly gentle giants.
Before you set out to spot a gator, however, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recommends brushing up on your “alligator awareness.” According to the University of Florida (UF) Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences (IFAS) extension office, the following tips will ensure your gator sighting is peaceful and safe for all parties involved.
In general, the UF IFAS office recommends leaving alligators alone. That includes refraining from feeding alligators or tossing food scraps their way. It’s illegal to feed an alligator in the state of Florida; moreover, as is the case with any wild animal, if an alligator is fed by a human, they may lose their fear of humans and move closer to you than is safe. The UF IFAS office also advises against swimming beyond designated areas in fresh and brackish bodies of water, as well as swimming in these waters at night, as alligators are most active between dusk and dawn. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on your kids and pets near these bodies of water—though UF IFAS assures your chances are higher of being struck by lightning than being attacked by an alligator. When alligators do attack, it’s usually because they’re very hungry and they think they’ve spotted a small prey animal in their habitat.
UF IFAS also corrects some common misconceptions surrounding proper behavior around gators. Though you may think these large, often sedentary reptiles keep to the ground, alligators are actually excellent climbers. If your aim is a zero percent chance of contact, make sure you’re behind a fence at least four-and-a-half-feet-tall. You may have caught wind of a regional legend that advises running in a zig-zag pattern when being approached by an alligator. UF IFAS says skip the zig-zag, and run as quickly as you can straight in the direction of safety. The extension office adds that alligators rarely charge humans, unless you’re approaching their nests.
By no means an exhaustive list, here are seven areas across the Sunshine State where you’re sure to catch a glimpse of Florida’s largest reptile and one of the state’s largest predators, the American alligator:
Sweetwater Wetlands Park
Originally created as a means of improving the water quality in the Floridian aquifer in north central Florida, Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Gainesville is now a thriving habitat for many species of native animals, including the American alligator. Enjoy a slow, peaceful walk along the three-and-a-half miles of trails and boardwalks that snake around this 125-acre wetland, and marvel at the size and power of the mature gators motionlessly sunning themselves in the grass a mere few yards from the trail.
Big Cypress National Preserve
Established in 1974, Big Cypress in Collier County due west of Hollywood is the United States’ first national preserve, and today, more than 1 million visitors trek to this freshwater swamp each year for a glimpse of the diverse wildlife who call this area home, like the endangered Florida panther and the American alligator. Head straight to the Oasis Visitor Center, the Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center, or H.P. Williams Roadside Park to view gators swimming in the fresh waters or resting on their banks.
Alligator sightings along the Wacissa River in Florida’s Big Bend are plentiful but not for the faint of heart, as you’ll likely be paddling a canoe or kayak a few, short feet from the giant crocodilians. If you can muster up the courage for a close encounter, paddle out in the early morning or evening hours, but exercise extreme caution to not disturb the wild animals, especially if you spot small, juvenile alligators whose mothers protect them from anything she views a threat for the first two years of their lives.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
If your idea of communing with nature involves remaining within the comfort and safety of your own car, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge’s Black Point Wildlife Drive marks the spot. This one-way, seven-mile path in Titusville on Florida’s Space Coast will lead you along shallow marshes and pine flatwood forests where you’re likely to spot an alligator or two, especially from April to June when warmer spring weather activates gators to begin their courtship and mating rituals.
Myakka River State Park
An astounding 37,000 acres of forest, prairies, hammocks, and wetlands form Myakka River State Park, located about 20 miles southeast of Sarasota. Take a flat-bottomed boat tour on the Gator Gal or the Myakka Maiden to get up close and personal with the alligators who call Upper Myakka Lake home, or obtain a permit at the park ranger station to visit the Deep Hole, a karst sink where hundreds of gators have been known to congregate at once. Rangers only dole out 30 permits each day to the Deep Hole, so be sure to arrive by 8 a.m. when the park opens to ensure you can witness this popular alligator hangout.
There’s one area of north central Florida’s Paynes Prairie where it’s a given that you’ll spot alligators (as well as majestic sandhill cranes, massive bison, and wild horses): La Chua Trail in Gainesville. Hike the three-mile boardwalk path leading to the Alachua Sink, the deepest of all Paynes Prairie sinkholes, and don’t forget to bring your camera to snap shots of the alligators soundlessly swimming underneath you at any given moment.
In the center of the Everglades’ freshwater marshes lies Shark Valley, an area of low-lying beauty just 30 miles west of Miami that you can traverse on foot, by bicycle, or on a tram tour offered by the National Park Service. Climb to the top of the 70-foot-tall observation tower for awe-inspiring views of the sawgrass marshes and count how many alligators you spot ambling about this peaceful corner of South Florida.