At the boat launch was a warning sign about local alligators. And when we rented a canoe, we signed a waiver that cautioned us about their presence in the water. Yet as we pushed away from the sandy shore of Wekiva River in central Florida and followed its lazy current into the forest, I still wasn’t entirely convinced we’d actually see a giant reptile that day.
Over the years, I’ve learned that wildlife is never guaranteed. For example, everyone who visits Maine wants to spot a moose, but they rarely get the opportunity. I figured the Florida alligator would be the same — present but elusive. Boy was I wrong.
Just a few minutes into our adventure, I spotted the dark, glistening head of an alligator emerge from the water just downstream.
“It’s swimming toward us,” said my husband, Derek, who sat in the back of the canoe and started to paddle backward.
Having lived our whole lives in Maine, neither of us had encountered an alligator in the wild before, and we weren’t sure what to do. As it drew closer to the boat, its tail cutting “S”s through the water behind it, we steered to the side of the waterway and watched it with wonder and trepidation. And as it glided through the water past our boat, we estimated its length to be about 6 or 7 feet, head to tail. Its skin was inky green.
To our relief, the alligator passed us by without more than a glance in our direction with its round chocolate brown eyes. So we paddled on, through a forest of palms, vines and bald cypress trees draped with Spanish moss. Common in swamps and along bodies of slow moving water in Florida, bald cypress trees can live up to 600 years, according to the University of Florida. They’ve feathery foliage and grow large, buttressed trunks in response to wet soil, forming root outgrowths known as “knees.”
As we paddled the river, these trees, growing alongside curved palms, created a jungle-like scenery along the banks, where we spotted a number of birds. White ibises, a large bird with long curved bills, perched in the trees. A great blue heron stood in the shallows so motionless that I questioned whether it was a very lifelike decoy until it turned its head, just a bit, to keep an eye on us as we passed by. And we saw several little blue herons, including a juvenile that was stark white, in contrast to the adults, which are grey-blue.
Florida is known as an especially great birding location. More than 500 native bird species or naturally occurring strays have been recorded in the state in historic times, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, and about 330 native species are currently common in the state.
Throughout our paddle we also saw several more alligators. Most of them were simply basking on half-submerged logs, as I’ve often seen turtles do. In fact, we saw several turtles, too. But I noticed that the two species never chose to enjoy the same log. After all, alligators eat turtles.
Alligators are an ancient species, dating back to more than 150 million years old, which means they managed to avoid extinction 65 million years ago when dinosaurs bit the dust. They’re carnivores with a diet that consists mainly of fish, turtles, snakes and small mammals. However, they’re opportunists, and in rare instances have gone after humans.
At the boat launch we used — which was located in the Wekiwa Springs State Park — there was a sign stating that “Alligators are an important part of Florida’s ecology and may be found wherever there is a natural body of water. They have a natural fear of man, but may lose that fear by being around people — especially if they are fed. When that happens, alligators can be dangerous. For this reason, it’s against park rules to feed or molest alligators in any way.”
It’s safe to say that Derek and I didn’t plan on feeding any alligators. And thanks to my 400mm camera lens, I could photograph them at a distance.
Male alligators grow to be an average of 10 to 15 feet in length and can weigh 1,000 pounds, while females are smaller, growing to a maximum of just under 10 feet. That day on the Wekiva River, it was hard to judge the length of the alligators that we came across, but I think most of them were less than that, so they must have been young. Nevertheless, we took them seriously and gave them wide berth, even though most of them were snoozing in the sun.
During our adventure, we came across several other paddlers in kayaks and canoes, and — if you can believe it — on stand-up paddle boards. That just seemed too risky for me.
About 1 mile down the river, we came to Wekiva Island, which is a recreation complex, restaurant and campground, not an actual island. With volleyball nets and cornhole games set up not far from the riverbanks, the complex seemed like a nice place to enjoy the river scenery without getting your feet wet. In wooden chairs, people sat along the shore, enjoying craft beer and wine and chatting to the paddlers who passed by.
We continued past the local watering hole, exploring a few more bends in the river before turning around for the paddle back, which was against the gentle current, prompting me to set down my camera and pick up my paddle to help. I did, however, pick up my camera a few more times, the last time to photograph an alligator that Derek estimated to be about 10 feet long — the biggest of the day. I was relieved to see that it was contentedly resting on a log, not looking for lunch.