Gator safety: Protecting yourself in the water

Gatorland expert shows you how to protect yourself

File photo.
File photo.

Alligators are as much a symbol of Florida as palm trees and breathtaking beaches.

But they also raise a lot of fear and concern in the Sunshine State.

According to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, there have been 335 unprovoked gator bites in the state since 1948, with 22 of them being deadly.

Back in May, a kayaker in Seminole County got the scare of his life.

"Something hit me, and it was big and it was violent," says Thomas Sweater. "It jolted at me, and it hit the backside of my arm so hard that it was throbbing."

That something was an alligator, which suddenly snapped at Sweater on Lake Triplet in Casselberry. The gator got so close, it knocked Sweater's girlfriend's dog out of the kayak.

"I looked over, she was swimming there, and I was like, oh geez, Buffy!" says Sweater. "So I grabbed the leash and ripped her in, just threw her in the boat."

Gator strikes are not unusual here in Central Florida, but some people aren't as lucky as Sweater.

"They don't like us by nature," says Tim Williams, an expert at Gatorland in Orlando. "They can see very well, they hear real good, their sense of smell is very good, and they're constantly looking for something."

But rarely is that something human.

"They're either searching for food or they're trying to get to a mate or a place that they can call their home," says Williams.

As violent as that incident was for Thomas Sweater, Williams doesn't think it was a gator attack.

"They see us in the water, we're splashing, we're making noise," says Williams. "I think an attack is with purpose. I think an attack is when the animal really wants you."

The fact that the gator swam away tells Williams that this was all a gator mistake.

"It's low light, either morning or evening, and they swim up on this thing and grab it, and once they grab it they say, 'Oh my gosh. It's more than what I thought it was.' And they turn it loose," Williams says.

But if you do see a gator in the water, maybe even coming toward you, stay calm.

"Let him go on his way," says Williams. "Don't call him, don't throw anything at him, don't throw food to him. If a gator starts toward you, ease away from that animal, don't make a lot of noise, a lot of splashing. But give it the respect, get away from it."

And in a worst-case scenario, if a gator bites you, Williams says you should fight hard by poking, pulling, and trying to get away from the animal.

"Their jaws are like steel traps," says Williams. "They're real hard to get open."

The Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission says that, on average, seven people are bitten so severely each year in Florida, they need to get medical attention.

But the agency adds that your odds of getting bit are very low: about one in 2.4 million.

You can read more by clicking here to view Lifeguard: A Local 6 Summer Safety Special.