|American Alligator - Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge|
The American Alligator is an amazing story of recovery. The species was on it's way to extinction 50 years ago. The case was made that a loss of habitat and over-hunting had this Florida native on the way to extinction. Hunting was closed for a couple of decades and when it was re-opened it is closely regulated (limited) and the population is back and thriving. Development continues to diminish habitat, but these are amazingly adaptable animals that do well in any warm wet place, and even developed Florida has a lot of warm wet places.
People and alligators are not an ideal mix, more because of what people bring with them then for animosity by the alligators for people. Alligators are defensive when it comes to humans, but normally not predatory. If they perceive you as a threat to their safety or their offspring, they will pursue and bite, but they will not normally come hunting for a person thinking "that looks like a tasty snack." They prefer to eat fish, turtles, birds and small animals. Small dogs are a good snack, they are the right size, and they make themselves easy to find by barking and snarling at the alligators. I know someone who lived to tell the tale of finding an alligator in the edge of the parking lot at a tourist attraction. He become convinced that it was either a fake put there to amuse the tourists, or dead, so he poked at it with a stick. He quickly learned that it was neither and not terribly happy with being so rudely awoken from an afternoon nap in the sun. No one was injured, there were conflicting reports on the need for people to change their pants in the aftermath. Swimmers are occasionally bitten, usually because of a surprise encounter or because they get between a gator and her nest (they are protective of eggs and hatch lings.) But for the most part alligators want to avoid you. When you see one, keep a respectful distance, don't do anything rash, don't poke them with a stick, take a picture from a reasonable distance and move on. Crocodiles are much more predatory, they will see you and think of you as a snack. Alligators are found throughout the semi-tropic and temperate zones, from swamps along the Texas coast to the everglades in Florida. Crocodiles are only found in extreme southern Florida. To tell them apart, alligators have wide noses and crocodiles have a pointed snout. I have seen hundred of alligators in the wild and never seen a crocodile outside of a zoo.
Alligators have become easier to see in Florida. When the weather is mild, not cold - but not hot, they crawl up on the bank and rest in the sun. In cold weather, look for them in the water in the sun. In hot weather they are harder to spot, they are in deeper water trying to stay cool. Remember, they are cold blooded and regulate body temperature by changing their environment. My best spotting day ever was along Bio-Lab Road in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on a 70 degree March day, I saw at least 100 of them in 3-4 miles. Ask the Rangers at the Wildlife refuge for directions and if it is safe to drive Bio-Lab Road the day you are there.