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The following may be of interest to anyone who engages in outdoor activities around southern 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 and do not feed the gators or mess with them in any way, but some of us are still a bit anxious. What size alligator is the greatest threat to someone in the water or on land?

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.

Alligator babies, which begin hatching in late summer, can be the most dangerous size to find in the wild. Adult females, which may reach lengths of 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, which often brings the mother gator hurrying to protect it. She will come up on land with mouth open to frighten away the intruder. Usually she will not continue in pursuit once a person 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, which grow larger than the females, are aggressive toward other males during mating season and perhaps at other times. I have never seen one threaten a person but have heard of claims by swimmers who say they have been attacked. It is conceivable that a territorial male alligator could mistake a swimmer for a competitor or some other 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. You say 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 have lost 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 probably approach on the surface if it thought it would receive a handout of food. You have been wise not to feed alligators at your ski area. Gators are huge animals that can be as dangerous as cows or horses merely because of their size. Plus, they have big mouths with sharp teeth and powerful crushing strength.

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

A. On land, back away, then run if an alligator (presumably a mother) comes out of the water toward you. If you are in the water, try to get to shore. As a last resort, fight back by hitting the animal in the face, even though 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 ended 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 the water, for many years and the only bites or bruises I have seen or personally experienced have come from catching the alligator. Although the bizarre is always possible with wild animals, I personally would not hesitate to water-ski merely because alligators were present. But do not take that as a recommendation that everyone should. Animal behavior is not always predictable, and the cost of error with a big predator could be serious.

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Wild baby alligators should be observed from a distance, as mothers will vigorously defend them against perceived threats. Photo courtesy Tom Luhring.