Swimming with Alligators

A forced breath into the palm of my hand, a large rumble which is felt more than heard reverberating through the water, cinderblock wall, and the soil beneath my feet. I’ve just put into as few words as possible my experience with the alligators at Reptile Ocean which is owned by Jean-Claude Savoie. Now before anyone clamors down there or calls and asks about ‘playing with alligators’ let me say this.

“Don’t ask Jean-Claude if you can play with the alligators.” This was a rare opportunity Becky and I were given and is in no way the norm.

To the general public the American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) is a predatory monster made famous by overacting television personalities and numerous cult classic films. Yes, they are in fact predatory reptiles, one look into those eyes and experiencing their behaviors albeit in captivity have given me a sense of enlightenment about crocodilian life. Most of my career has been centered about venomous or captive reptiles that can be kept in smaller spaces. While I have always respected those who worked or spoke passionately of crocodilians. It’s truly impossible to comprehend their fascination and admiration for such large predators until you experience them for yourself.

Baby American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)I’m not talking about holding a baby alligator which in itself is incredible. I am speaking of watching them for hours and if somehow, you get the opportunity as Becky and I did. You enter their home with respect and wonder and interact with them on their terms. So began, our adventure last week…

Just walking into Reptile Ocean is an experience in itself. You walk over a small bridge to the main shop and looking down you are witness to American Alligators basking or swimming in their huge water area complete with waterfall. Becky and I were here to see the American Alligators as well as the rest of the crocodilians that call Reptile Ocean home. I was also there on business to speak with the owner Jean-Claude Savoie who has been working with crocodilians since the age of seven. Now, while we didn’t get the opportunity for the interview we’d hoped for (it’s a lot of work running a busy storefront) we did get to see his collection and learned a lot about the crocodilian lifestyle.

As it turns out American Alligators are a gentle creature with some characteristics which are often missed by the main stream media. It was interesting to hear Jean-Claude talk about the mothering care of Alligators wherein the female will help hatch the baby alligators by gently crushing the shells of the hatchlings and more. As we talked Jean-Claude received a call from a long time friend by the name of Tim. He told Tim

“My American friend is here to learn about alligators.”

He then asked Tim to come over and help ‘Clean Algae’ from the enclosure which I am now convinced is code for

“Let’s scare the life out of the silly tourist.”

Tim arrives and my honest first impression is Tim looks like someone who could go toe to toe with anyone in the UFC. As my dad would describe Tim ‘He’s built like a brick shithouse.’ Now before Tim’s arrival Jean-Claude explains that Tim is the only one whom he’d trust when working with the Cuban Crocodile which he has already explained is aggressive in nature. Shortly after Tim arrives, I am in board shorts and we are walking downstairs to get some close up interaction with the alligators. We opened the enclosure door and Tim walks over to Junior the large adult male alligator as if they were best friends reuniting after an absence and pats him on the snout.

Alligator mouth openJunior gapes at Tim as he continues patting the enormous head and stroking it. All the while Tim is encouraging me closer to the large reptile and telling me I am completely safe. I am looking about like a scared child in a darkened room with a single light bulb. Noises are off in the distance as monsters lurk about just waiting to spring out of the darkness and consume me. Now keep in mind, I am watching and judging the gape of Junior and I’ve succinctly concluded that he could not only swallow my head but one small mishap and I will be forever be known as stumpy.

Junior I am presuming weighs in at easily over 300 lbs of solid muscle. This is a massive creature which is both fascinating and terrifying at the same time. As some of my closer colleagues know; I have in prior years free-handled venomous snakes and this experience with Junior tops the sense of ‘danger’ in that regard. Just to be clear; no one should EVER free-handle venomous animals. I was also never in any danger from the alligator due to the years of experience of Tim and Jean-Claude and I knew that subconsciously but consciously it’s a lot to take in when you’re in the water with live alligators. After some coaxing by Tim and watching his movements I decided it was time that I actually get hands on with a live adult Alligator and so I crept in behind Tim and following his guidance began to stroke Junior on the head and snout.

As I drew my hand over Junior’s nostrils he exhaled a short breath as if he was sighing. I think that was the moment that changed my views. I had been in the enclosure once before with Junior and the 3 other alligators but this time around something was different. I wasn’t as nervous and was more aware of the behaviors being exhibited.

Petting American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)Tim and Jean-Claude explained that Junior and his enclosure mates expressed natural behaviors because they were treated and maintained as naturally as possible. While Jean-Claude interacts with the alligators it’s not in a sideshow fashion wherein the animal is forced to endure hours of human interaction. It quickly became obvious that Junior and his companions were very aware of our presence and were tolerant of us being there. As time went on I did become so comfortable as to attempt to handle one of the females who was floating nearby.

Looking back, I can say I did this out of a testament to my own ‘bravery’ but also to learn how to interact properly with such a majestic creature. I placed my hands around her tail watching her head and upper body the entire time for any signs that she may not agree with being handled. I was informed earlier that Alligators when going to bite will do so by a sideways motion as they cannot strike upwards. This information was relayed as I had asked about always seeing people grab an alligators snout and being able to hold it closed. I wasn’t about to try this as I am sure that it cannot be comfortable for an alligator to have it’s mouth held shut and I wasn’t here to cause undue stress.

As I said I wanted to feel the alligator and it’s body to learn the mechanics of the species. This was a very short-lived experience to say the least. The female allowed me to touch her tail but when I placed what I would’ve considered a firmer grip on her she flipped her tail. This small motion on her part knocked me off-balance, I was wholly unprepared for the power in such an appendage which again looking back was foolish of me. Alligators use their tail for swimming and so it would naturally be a very strong appendage to say the least.

The Crocodilian family is one that I look forward to learning more about with certain people and I hope to share those experiences with you in the future. In closing I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Jean-Claude of Reptile Ocean and Tim (The Crocodile Whisperer) for allowing Becky and I to experience American Alligators in a way that not many people have had the opportunity to. I hope to share with you future interactions in way of video as well as other articles as I learn more from Jean-Claude and Tim.