Is it safe to kayak with alligators? We get this question all the time.
- The short answer is yes, the long answer is yes and no. Please, let me explain.
It makes total sense that our customers would be afraid of these normally docile animals. They have teeth, they are mean-looking, and they look very similar to the well-known saltwater crocodiles in Australia and Africa. This article isn’t designed to convince you to kayak with alligators, although we would love to take you out. It is designed more to educate the general public if they plan to kayak with alligators. If you are interested in one of our kayak tours please don’t hesitate to book one today!
When comparing the American alligator to the Nile Crocodile, the most important difference is what they eat. We have all seen those crazy videos of wildebeest crossing the crocodile-infested rivers in Africa. With that said, Nile Crocodiles regularly eat animals that are twice as large as a full-grown adult human. Now, let’s consider what the American Aligator eats. Typically, an adult alligator will prey on fish, snakes, turtles, small mammals, and birds. Ok, you might notice the word small mammal. The most abundant small mammal that an alligator eats in our location would be a raccoon, not a zebra.
So what is my point?
- My point is an alligator does not see a human as a food source, with one critical and super frustrating exception, and that is if an alligator is being fed by humans. If this starts to happen, then the answer is yes, alligators can be dangerous to kayakers. This is why it is so important not to ever feed an alligator!
Who feeds a wild Alligator? The most common instance in our area is a fisherman. Fisherman will often clean their catch of the day at the local boat ramp, then throw the waste in the water. If an alligator starts to associate people with a meal, then at that point, they can become dangerous. However, you still need to remember an Alligator does not see you as prey, but they can associate you with a meal.
What do you do when kayaking with alligators?
Alligators are considered docile and, for the most part, don’t want to have anything to do with you. We often kayak with alligators, and sometimes we must pass them while they are sunning themselves on a beach or sandbar. We try our best not to disturb them and have found the best way to keep them from entering the water is to not point your kayak directly at them and to utilize a smooth calm stroke. An erratic or fast-moving paddle seems to freak gators out. Following these suggestions, we will sometimes pass by a 10 footer within 10 yards, but
- if you point right at it, he might enter the water when you’re not even 30 yards away.
Alligators are lazy
They want to eat, reproduce and maintain the proper body temperature. Unlike people, alligators are cold-blooded, meaning they are not able to regulate their own body temperature. If an alligator can’t internally regulate their body temp then how do they do it? It’s simple when a sandbar is warmer than the water, gators will exit and bask in the sun. If the water temps are warmer than the air temp, they will simply float in the water. This is often the case overnight and early mornings when the air temp is still a bit chilly. So, if you find an alligator sunning itself out of the water, it is out of necessity, and I promise you he or she would prefer to be in the water if not for the temperature.
You know that phrase fish out of water? Well, you could easily say alligator out of water too, except an alligator can still breathe just fine. So, if you see an alligator on a sandbar, try not to point directly at it and pass them with the broadside of your kayak facing them. Sometimes there is so little room in a creek or waterway that we will inevitably push the gator into the water. Not a big deal if it happens. Just keep kayaking and stay alert.
What happens if you are kayaking and you see an alligator in the water?
Most often, nothing. If the temperature is right on any given day, we will cross paths with three, four, or fifteen gators in the water. You will see about a foot or two of their head, or the telltale eyes and nose only. If we see this, we simple kayak on by. Again, try not to point directly at them, and as you start to get closer and closer, you will typically begin to see a subtle and controlled sink, then he disappears. Most often, that gator is only inches below the surface. Out of habit, I try not to kayak directly over the gator’s last location. If you encounter an alligator while kayaking and they are perfectly still, they aren’t making any weird movements or noises, and they seem comfortable this is what I tell my customers.
“this is super important, listen up. If you see an alligator, I need you to do this exactly as I say. Slowly unzip your life jacket pocket, pull out your camera, and take a picture.”
That is it! Please, understand though, I’m not suggesting you paddle at an alligator, nor am I suggesting you take an alligator selfy from 5 feet away.
- The point here is that in general alligators truly are more afraid of you than you are of them. This is why they will often quickly enter the water when you approach them.
Is it safe to kayak during alligator mating season?
You may have noticed I said if you kayak with alligators and they aren’t moving or making noise, you are safe. This is where we start to get into the scenarios when kayaking with alligators could be dangerous. Let me rephrase that, these are the scenarios when you should take extra precautions when kayaking with alligators and when you should pay closer attention to their body language and your surroundings. All of our guides are comfortable in gator territory. If we weren’t, we would be kayaking in Maine. With that said, we all have a healthy respect for them. After all, they are capable of seriously injuring you or even killing you.
Alligators love hot weather
I mentioned earlier that alligators are lazy and often look like statues; however, there are times during the year when gators start to move. The trigger for us is as reliable as my Toyota tundra.
- On the very first 90-degree day in the winter or spring, alligators will immediately change from frozen statues to remote-controlled boats zooming around the pond.
On this 90-degree day, you have entered alligator mating season. It might not be full-on mating season just yet, but at this time, gators are on the move, they are sizing up their neighbors, and they are looking for the prime waters throughout the glades. Two weeks before the 90-degree day, you might have seen 4 or 5 gators sharing a small beach or sandbar, but now things have changed. Gators are now more solitary and territorial. They don’t want to share the beach with anyone, and the largest alligators will start to defend their small pond or sunny patch of beach. This is now when you need to start paying close attention to the alligator’s body language. Sometimes while launching or gearing up for your paddle, you will notice one, two, or three gators on the move.
Alligator body language
Witnessing multiple alligators swimming through a pond should signal to you, it’s time to pay attention. Often during this season, you will hear that deep bellow, or you will see and hear super loud splashes around a corner. That very easily could be an alligator fight. Encountering two gators in fight mode is an exciting experience to witness but also potentially dangerous. Think two sheep ramming each other. If you jump right in the middle of that sheep battle, those sheep might very well start charging you. They obviously don’t want to eat you. They just want to fight you. The same thing can happen in gator territory. If you witness two gators fighting, one could very easily see you as the next competitor after winning his first fight.
- Remember, he isn’t’ trying to eat you; he is trying to fight you, almost as dangerous. If this happens, you should paddle away from the agitated gator.
What does an agitated gator look or act like?
- Puffing up and down – you will notice the belly getting larger and the back will raise up out of the water
- Clapping or snapping of the jaws
- Alligator swimming towards you
- Sinking and reappearing while getting closer or not moving away from you
- Bellowing – the bellow is one of the coolest things I’ve witnessed in nature, and you will hear and hopefully see it during matting season
You will often see them puff up and down while floating on the water, or you will see their mouths snapping. You could even have one swim directly at you.
- If the gator swims directly at you, you should line the kayak to point directly at him, then back paddle. Earlier I mentioned not to point your kayak at the gator, but if you are trying to scare him off or make him back down you do want to point at him.
This will keep your eyes on the gator and put the kayak in the position they don’t like. When you witness these types of behaviors, you need to stay cautious and aware. Even if they swim at you, they are hopefully false charging. I have experienced some charges in years past, but the gator will usually swim towards you, suddenly change direction, and dive, making a huge splash. Yes, it is intimidating, but if you know how to react, you can stay safe.
Will Alligators attack a kayak?
Quick answer yes, the better answer is most likely no. With all of the above information, we now better understand why an alligator might attack a kayaker. Now that we know alligators don’t see us as food but might associate us with being fed, we understand we might want to be more cautious when kayaking with alligators at public boat ramps or docks.
We also understand that alligators, like people, can be moody. If I notice a dude pacing back and forth erratically on the corner of the street, I’m probably going to cross the street. Maybe go a different direction. If I see someone roaring and pounding his chest, like he just finished a cage fight, I’m probably not going to and ask him for directions.
- Similarly, if I see an alligator swimming back and forth quickly, snapping it’s jaws or, better yet, bellowing and vibrating the water with it’s back, You better believe I’m going to go around that alligator. He has communicated through his body language not to mess with him.
Nesting Female alligators
This is another potentially dangerous alligator scenario. Female alligators are great mothers, and they will defend their nest and young. If you see a weird elevated mound in the middle of a pond, you could and probably should consider that to be an alligator nest if a gator is nearby. I would stay away from it. At least until you know for sure it is not someone’s home. A mother alligator might quickly chase you out of that area. On the other side of that, I have encountered mother gators in heavily used kayak trails like the Turner River in Big Cypress. For the most part, that mother is very used to seeing kayakers and seems to ignore them altogether. With that said, I still pay close attention when approaching that area.
Kayak Fishing with Alligators
I know this has been a long article, but I wanted to make sure I covered everything I have learned about kayaking with alligators. After all, this is a pretty serious subject. My first regular encounters with alligators started the summer after my junior year in college. At this time, I had already changed my career goals from being a specialized veterinarian to becoming a wildlife biologist. To graduate with a Fisheries and Wildlife degree from NCSU, we had to spend half of a summer enrolled in a 6-week “summer camp.” This was more like summer school than camp. Anyway, this meant I could not spend my final summer in college as a kayak guide in Maine, like the previous two.
So, what was the second-best thing I could do? Get an internship that provided employee housing on a Carolina Bay in eastern North Carolina. There I lived with my black lab and got off of work every day at 3 pm. Where am I going with this? Basically, every day at 3’oclock, I would hop in the canoe and fish for bass and bream. For those of you not from the south, a bream is a “sunfish”. This was on private water, so there were tons of massive bream. So big I could barely hold them with one hand.
How to Land Fish in Alligator waters
Hooking and landing these big fish, I started to encounter a problem. The alligators would begin to show up as soon as I began catching fish. Reeling the fish in too fast would make too much noise. I had to change my tactics on landing them. Basically, the gators were attracted to the commotion on the top of the water. If they saw the opportunity, they would swim out and steal my fish. I realized I had to start reeling in the fish slower. I had to keep my rod tip pointed closer to the water but still allow for play so I wouldn’t break them off. Bringing the fish in slower didn’t make as much commotion on the top of the water, and often, the gators didn’t know I was landing fish. The key here is to keep the fish as quiet as possible when reeling them in.
However, the gators still knew I was there, and I did need to keep an eye out for them. I had to change up how I released or revived any fish. Rarely would I pose for pictures with my hands halfway in the water, and I definitely wasn’t reviving them with my hands in the water. I was releasing them as quickly as possible, making sure no alligators were hiding out below the surface of the water, ready to snatch my catch or my hand.
Join us on a Guided Kayak Tour
Lastly, we provide guided kayak tours through the 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge and the Fakahatchee State Preserve just south of Naples and Marco Island. We encounter numerous alligators on a daily basis. Our guides have witnessed agitated alligators, and on occasion, we have surprised them. Our kayaks are designed for this specific area, are unbelievably stable, and have higher gunnels than a typical sea kayak. All participants are required to wear properly fitting life jackets. We provide them with alligator safety information before entering the water. If you combine proper preparation with the right gear and knowledge, it can be safe to kayak with alligators.
If you have something to add to this article, have questions or want to join us and kayak with alligators, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Feel free to check us out on Instagram or Facebook, where we are regularly posting photos and videos of our kayak experiences in South Florida and Colorado.