Reptiles have a reputation for being cold-blooded killers thanks to movies and hearsay stories, but is it truth or fabrication?
Being a diver for 12 years, I have been lucky enough to have dived peacefully with many an incredible animal, I have been diving with Sharks for over 12 years but Alligators? Never.
This all changed when I started a project earlier this year creating a series of photographs diving with the world's most misunderstood animals.
Back in February, I travelled to America to meet with Chris Gillette at the Everglades Outpost. The Everglades outpost is a non-profit rehabilitation centre nestled close to the Everglades swampy National Parks.
Most of the animals here have either been confiscated from illegal or traumatic situations, Chris is a biologist and activist from the US who you may have seen on the TV Series Gatorboys.
Chris’s passion for reptiles become very apparent from our initial meeting, as I filled in a plethora of paperwork under the wooden shelter in the pouring down rain. The first question I had for Chris was that though I understand that the animals are used to Chris hanging out in their home, how did he know they would react in a similar way to a stranger, to which he replied that he didn't...And what did I think all the paperwork for? I laughed, he laughed, I went and hid in the bathroom for 10 minutes.
The first things I learned from my chats with Chris were that in the Everglades, Florida has what is considered a relocation rule, where they will try to relocate an Alligator where possible if it affecting the human inhabitance of the area, HOWEVER, thanks to these creatures incredible homing abilities, Alligators nearly always try to find their way home, in those instances, if an alligator is considered a nuisance, the Alligator will be 'disposed of'.
The 8 Alligators that I will be diving with today have been taken in due to this situation.
Chris was also quick to emphasise that these are not tame animals, that I will be swimming with, apparently he gets asked all the time whether these animals are tame, to which Chris replies that you can NOT tame a wild animals, with millions of years of evolution and behavibehavioraloural attributes, you cannot train these out of a wild predator in one lifetime.
The remaining important thing I took from this first talk was that the Gators are more excited when it rains (good to know...)
This is due to several sensory organs situated on the Alligators nose and jaw, these sensory organs are crammed with nerve endings and respond to pressure; therefore, helping some members of the crocodilian family to find prey and feel disturbances in murky water.
After I was shown around a very impressive venomous snake collection, we entered the back of the centre to find a man-made lagoon which housed 8 rescue alligators including the star of the show Casper, Chris has been working with Casper for 10 years and has come to know Caspers traits and personality, making him an excellent first-time gator buddy.
Amongst the briefing were a few rules in order to keep the session running smoothly, the first was to keep an eye all around you at all times, as it would be rather easy be so preoccupied with Casper that you step back and bump into another co inhabiter, the second was to ensure you were always an arms distance from the “business end” at all time, and the third was to of course always listen to and adhere to what Chris tells me to do.
The water was pretty fresh, I spend the first session just enjoying the experience, in a 3 mil wetsuit and GoPro in hand, I headed into the chill water to experience these incredible animals up close; now, I’m used to Shark shaped individuals cruising towards me, but I must say, this experience made me rather nervous to begin with. After a while I began to relax, and changed into my costume, eventually building up the courage to remove my mask and start making some awesome photos. The animals in the enclosure appeared somewhat uninterested in our presence, going about their usual business or chilling in the corners of the lagoon under trees, Casper, who seemed the most relaxed of the lot spent most of his time floating in the centre of the pool, ever so often snapping at fallen leaves that had landed in his swimming area.
So what did I learn from this experience?
Alligators, Bloodthirsty killers who will eat you alive the moment you tiptoe into the water? Of course not. Alligators are animals, animals which have just as much right to be on this planet as we do, do they kill on-sight? of course not, they kill to eat, they kill to defend and they kill to survive. Alligators like all animals play their part in a well-balanced and healthy ecosystem, and with a rise in Alligator and human interaction, it is of vital importance to understand that we need to share our space with these animals, by learning about them and understanding their importance, we can coincide peacefully and safely. This of course assuming that the human element will develop the right attitude to allow it.
All in all the full experience was incredible! Would I do it again? Absolutely.
This experience could only be topped by tripping over Bill Nye the Science Guys suitcase at the airport. My bad Bill.
Alligator Fun Facts!
1. There are two different types of alligators, and they vary in size. The American alligator can grow up to 11.2 feet (3.4 meters) long and weight nearly half a ton (1,000 lbs. or 454 kilograms),
Chinese alligators are smaller, growing to around 4.6 to 4.9 feet (1.4 to 1.5 m) long and usually weighing only around 50 lbs. (22.7 kg).
2. Though many people are afraid of alligators, these animals keep to themselves and usually don't attack humans unless they are threatened. Alligators are opportunistic eaters (or lazy eaters...) who will take an easy meal over a healthy human every time.
3. Alligators are chatty!
Despite not having vocal cords, these resourceful animals communicate using a range of bellows, growls, hisses, roars and even a cough-like sound called a chumpf.
4 The alligator diet can include fruit and plants, if available.
Alligators are carnivores, and their typical diet is comprised of fish, mollusks, birds, small mammals, and smaller reptiles. At least some of the alligators housed with large tortoises at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park were seen eating lettuce leaves and squash that had been put out for the tortoises. The alligators had also been seen eating kumquats, oranges, lemons and limes. While it's highly unlikely the American alligator will adopt an allvegan approach to eating, they might be willing to live by more than meat alone, if given the opportunity.
5. Alligators are outstanding mothers.
The young alligators begin catching their own food the day they are born. In most ways, however, they are quite vulnerable and remain under their mother's protection for as long as two years. At some point, the mother will have a new brood to care for and the young alligators will leave to begin its own family. Very young alligators grow about a foot a year. During this time, the hatchlings stick together in what's known as "pods." Most gators reach sexual maturity around age 10-12, when they are about six feet long.