Lord of the Water The American alligator is a predator, a conservationist of sorts, and an animal to be watched from a distance.

OUT ON THE 17th FAIRWAY, THE GOLFER SLICES a drive hard to the right. It skids down an embankment and plops into the water hazard. Muttering aloud, the player strides purposefully to the dark lagoon, bends down and reaches for the submerged Titleist Pro V1x. That’s when he sees the yellow eyes, fixed on him. The eyes are attached to a large, dark head, which is attached to the body of a barely submerged alligator. And it is silently, intently coming his way.  The golfer backs away slowly. He’s a local and knows not to run. He hops in his cart, retreats up fairway, and takes a mulligan. The gator seizes the ball in its long black jaws and slides back underwater. All’s well that ends well.

The Alligator and Its Serious Cousins

American Alligator

American Alligator

The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) is the largest animal on Hilton Head Island and the Lowcountry. It’s closely related to American crocodile, which lives only in southern Florida. The gator is blackish and has a rounded snout; the croc is pale green and has a tapered, almost pointed snout.

AMAZING FACT #1: the alligator and crocodile are descended from the gigantic “super croc” that was 40 feet in length, weighed 8 tons, and ate dinosaurs. Our modern alligator is shorter and slimmer (male gators may reach 12-14 feet, and weigh over 600-800 pounds). It inhabits freshwater wetlands, lagoons, ponds, lakes and drainage ditches. Our local gators prey on wading birds, fish, turtles, and small to large mammals careless enough graze along the water’s edge. Even baby alligators are fair game.

AMAZING FACT#2: Alligators swallow stones to help digestion. They probably gobble golf balls for the same reason.

The alligator is considered an important “keystone species” that affects many other animals and plants in its habitat. For instance, the gator excavates deep wallows, or “gator holes” in wetlands (I’ve stepped in one or two gator holes and they are deep!). These depressions keep the alligator cool in summer, and provide a habitat for fish, frogs, birds, mammals and aquatic insects. In the warm months, the alligator’s metabolism slows, and it seldom preys on its pond-mates.

Gator Safety Tips

Of course it’s fun and exciting to snap the perfect up-close photo of an Island alligator. But never forget that an alligator is a wild animal with a predator’s instincts. For safe, successful gator watching, follow these guidelines.

1. Watch alligators from a distance of 100 feet or more. Position yourself on a bridge, dock or other overlook ABOVE the gator. Use a telephoto lens to snap the perfect photo.

2. Do not feed or bother an alligator. This behavior teaches the animal to approach humans.

3. Always keep children and pets away from alligator habitats.

4. If you see glowing red eyes staring at you from a lagoon at night, you are up close and personal with an alligator. Reflective cells in the eyes are coal red, and help the reptile see very well in the dark.

4. Golfers: any water hazard is gator territory. It’s much safer if two people approach a water area. But don’t challenge this animal over one little golf ball.

AMAZING FACT #3: An alligator can run 25 mph in short spurts on dry land. Even Usain Bolt can’t run that fast.

To learn more about alligators: Visit the Coastal Discovery Museum and attend a guided nature walk near alligator habitat. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources publishes handy information, such as common gator myths and truths, and how to register complaints about aggressive alligators.