A pair of yellow eyes bobbing just above the surface of the water. A dark, scaly spine gliding through the marsh. A wide, rounded snout full of sharp teeth. Alligators spark fear and curiosity in many, but these prehistoric reptiles aren’t nearly as dangerous as you might think.
While tragedies certainly occur—like when an alligator snatches a child from his father’s grasp—such horrific events are few and far between. Still, they grab headlines, causing would-be adventurers to quake in fear at the very sight of one of these wily reptiles. But with a little understanding and at least an ounce of respect, you can avoid a tussle with a gator and escape with your life if worse comes to worst.
Get to know the American alligator
We generally fear the things we don’t understand. And as wild animals go, alligators are pretty misunderstood. Often perceived as aggressive, threatening man-killers (that might be a more apt description of alligators’ cousins, crocodiles), gators are often just the opposite: creatures that prefer to be left alone.
They are carnivores, but humans aren’t one of their preferred meals. They’re more defensive than aggressive, too, so attacks on people are extremely rare. In fact, you’re more likely to drown near an alligator than you are to be attacked by the animal itself.
For example, even though Florida is home to more than 1 million of these creatures, the state averages only six alligator bite victims per year and gators killed just 26 people there between 1948 and 2020, according to a report by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Still, these large reptiles should be treated with respect. If you’re in an area or near a body of water where alligators live—and they generally populate the coastal US from Texas to North Carolina—it’s wise to be wary. Alligators can inhabit lakes, rivers, and swamps, in fresh or salt water, and full-grown adults can range from 6 to 13 feet long (though the average is closer to 7 feet). The larger they are, the more damage they can cause.
How to avoid alligators
You can’t be hurt by an alligator if you avoid them altogether. Fortunately, they’re trying to stay away from you as much as you’re trying not to run into them, according to Ruth Elsey, biologist manager at Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, repeating the old adage that applies to most creatures.
So if an alligator sees or hears you coming (they have acute senses, including hearing), it will likely make itself scarce and you may never even know it was there. Even so, assume the creatures are hiding under brush or just beneath the surface of the water, especially in places like Louisiana or Florida where they could be living in nearly any body of water.
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If you do see one (or several), keep your distance—at least 15 to 30 feet. While alligators aren’t typically aggressive, they will protect themselves or their nests if they feel threatened. Alligators can be active year-round, especially during warmer summer months and between dusk and dawn when they do most of their hunting, but you should be extra wary in June during nesting season when they will be protecting their eggs, and in the spring when mating season begins.
No matter the time of day, however, avoid swimming or wading (that goes for pets, too) in areas where alligators may live or feed. And whatever you do, don’t try to see how close you can get for a better look, especially if there’s a nest nearby. If you find an alligator and it starts hissing, you’re too close.
Men, especially, should take note of this guidance, as they seem to be the ones most likely to ignore it. According to a 2019 report in The Journal of Wildlife Management, more than 81 percent of alligator bite victims in Florida from 1948 to 2014 were male (a similar percentage to snakebite victims as chance would have it).
But no matter who you are, the “stay clear” rule applies whether you’re on land or water, and the latter is an especially dangerous place to be within striking distance of an alligator. They can be hard to spot and are much faster swimmers than people. In fact, nearly 94 percent of Florida bite victims were injured in water or near the shore. What’s more, the severity of the bite seems directly correlated to the depth of the water: the deeper the water, the more serious the injuries.
So if you are swimming in an area where gators might reside, do so with at least one friend who can help you keep an eye out for potential dangers.
[Related: What to do if you encounter a bison]
And whatever you do, never feed wild alligators—it’s unhealthy for the animals and bad for human-gator interactions. “They’re going to start to associate humans with food and that’s a bad thing,” Elsey says. “They are reasonably intelligent and they’ll learn where to get free handouts.” In fact, more than 34 percent of bite incidents in Florida occurred because people were feeding the animals.
“It’s something I can’t hammer home enough: don’t feed gators,” Elsey says. That includes tossing fish guts overboard when fishing.
What to do if an alligator attacks
If you do get too close or are surprised by an alligator, you still have a chance to escape. On land, the oversized reptiles can move fast, but only over short distances. They have no aerobic metabolism, which means little oxygen gets to their muscles and they tire quickly. But if you’re within a few meters of their toothy snout, you’re in the danger zone and one quick snap could end with your hand or foot in their vice-like jaws.
The key, then, is to move away quickly. “Depart the area in a straight line,” says Frank Mazzotti, professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida. “It’s absolutely a myth that you zigzag. It just keeps you in the strike radius of that alligator longer.” It shouldn’t take more than a few very brisk strides to get away as the animal will likely give up after 15 or 20 feet, he says.
On the other hand, if an alligator picks a fight in the water, you no longer have the upper hand: the animal is a much better swimmer than you. It might try to roll after it latches on to a limb. If that happens, don’t try to stop it. Roll with it, but fight like your life depends on it—because it might.
Poke it in the eyes, shove an arm down its throat, and punch it on the end of its sensitive snout. The key is to convince the alligator that you’re not worth the trouble, Mazzotti says.
He also points out that alligators often bite and then immediately let go (more than 36 percent of the time according to The Journal of Wildlife Management) or bite and then loosen their grip to readjust. If they do, take that opportunity to escape.
But if you weren’t quick enough, don’t try to squirm loose or pry it’s jaws open—you won’t be able to. Just fight back as hard as you can until the animal lets go.
Correction April 14, 2021: This story previously did not include North Carolina as alligator habitat.
How do you avoid alligators? ›
If you want to keep alligators out of your yard, install a fence that is at least four and a half feet tall. Alligators are good climbers—anything lower would not be adequate protection. If you do have a close run-in with an alligator that charges at you, run away fast and straight, not zig-zag.What should you do if you encounter an alligator? ›
Alligators have a natural fear of humans, and usually begin a quick retreat when approached by people. If you have a close encounter with an alligator a few yards away, back away slowly. It is extremely rare for wild alligators to chase people, but they can run up to 35 miles per hour for short distances on land.How do you stop an alligator from attacking you? ›
This guide should help educate about alligators and how to avoid provoking an attack, however in the rare event that this reptile does bite, the quickest way to defend yourself is by immediately poking them in the eyes. Jabbing an object in an alligator's eye socket can get their jaw loose for you to be set free.What is the best way to get away from an alligator? ›
If you can escape on land, run away in a straight line. Experts debunk the advice to zig-zag. Gators can move really fast on land, but only in short bursts and distances before they tire out. Try to cause a gag reflex by jamming any objects you can reach into the back of the alligator's mouth.What scares an alligator away? ›
Running away is a good option and a distance of around 20 or 30 feet is usually all it takes to get safely away from an alligator. "They are not made for running after prey," he said. Making a lot of noise can also scare off a gator before any attack begins.What time of day are alligators least active? ›
Swim only during daylight hours. Alligators are most active between dusk and dawn. Inform others that feeding alligators is illegal and creates problems for others who want to recreate in or near the water.How do you outsmart an alligator? ›
“Pop them on the snout. The tip of their snout is very sensitive. That might be able to get them to release you,” Magill said. Jabbing a gator in the eyes may also make it release its bite, even for just a moment, allowing you to get away before it pulls you underwater.What state has the most alligator attacks? ›
The state of Florida, where most attacks and deaths occur, began keeping records of alligator attacks in 1948.Can you hold an alligator's mouth shut? ›
All of an alligator's jaw power is on the down stroke. They have almost no muscle power when it comes to opening their jaws. What that means is that you can hold the animal's mouth shut with one hand.Do alligators bother you? ›
First, it is rare for an alligator to pursue a human because humans are too large to be suitable prey. However, if an alligator does make an aggressive charge, run fast and straight away from the alligator. They usually do not run very far. But remember they are most likely to charge at you if you are near their nest.
What are signs of alligators? ›
Scour the Shore
Since alligators spend most of their time sunbathing on the shores, there are often telltale signs of their presence. Some of these markings might include large indentations or gouges in the ground and sliding marks where they reentered the water.
Be very careful. It is highly recommended that all menstruating women wear a diaper in addition to a full wetsuit too help cover the scent of their menstruations. Like bears, gators can smell the menstruation, which will put your entire party at risk.Where are most alligator attacks? ›
- Lake Kissimmee, Florida.
- Alligator Lake, Florida. ...
- Lake Okeechobee, Florida. ...
- Sawgrass Lake, Florida. ...
- Lake Poinsett, Florida. ...
- Cypress Lake, Louisiana. ...
- Lake Lewisville, Texas. ...
- Caddo Lake, Louisiana. ...