Gators in the Lowcountry: What You Need to Know

Gators are a fact of life; here's what you need to know about the other type of natives

If you get near a body of fresh or brackish water on Hilton Head, which is hard not to do given the preponderance of the island’s lakes and lagoons, there’s a good chance you will see a creature that looks as though it has crawled right out of Jurassic Park. This is the American alligator, the largest reptile on the North American continent and one of the oldest surviving vertebrates on the planet.

Alligators abound on Hilton Head, where developers have provided readymade homes for them by creating the waterways that decorate the island’s communities and golf courses. “If there’s a mud puddle in the Lowcountry, there’s an alligator in it,” says Dean Harrigal, who coordinates the alligator nuisance program in the area. There have been no formal surveys of the alligator population on Hilton Head, but there are probably from 2,000 to 4,000 gators living on the island, says Walt Rhodes, the alligator project supervisor for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

Alligators, which are protected by state and federal law, can grow to a length of 12 feet, but most of the gators removed from Hilton Head under the nuisance program are from 6 to 8 feet long, according to Harrigal. Even so, if left alone, alligators pose little threat to humans, say Rhodes and Harrigal. “Gators are naturally shy of people,” says Rhodes. According to the two alligator experts, humans are more of a threat to gators than vice versa.

If the state receives a complaint about a gator on Hilton Head, and the animal is deemed a nuisance because of its behavior or location, the reptile will be removed. Removed, in this case, means destroyed, not relocated. Relocating a gator doesn’t work because of the animal’s strong homing instinct: Gators have been known to travel as much as 30 miles to return to their nesting areas, Rhodes and Harrigal say. About 50 gators are removed from Hilton Head each year because of complaints against them, but the two say that wouldn’t be the case if people were more tolerant of the animals, who were here first (present-day gators are direct descendants of a creature that lived in what is now Florida during the Miocene epoch, which occurred 25 million years ago).

People don’t like gators for a number of reasons. For one thing, the alligator’s appearance is not in its favor. The gator looks like a big lizard, only uglier, and it seems to have a malevolent smile permanently plastered on its bumpy face. “It’s not Bambi,” says Rhodes. “It’s not warm and fuzzy, it’s cold and scaly.” For another, most people don’t know much about alligators and their relatively placid temperament. Folks confuse gators with the crocodiles found on other continents, in particular the 14-foot crocs seen devouring water buffaloes in sensationalized nature flicks. Gators, says Rhodes, “will let you alone if you let them alone, and they’ll see you first.”

Humans have a tendency to bring out the aggressiveness in gators by feeding them. If a person feeds a gator enough times, the beast’s golf ball-size brain begins to associate the human with food. This is, if you’ll pardon the phrase, a recipe for disaster that can be harmful to the human involved and fatal to the gator. It’s also against the law: If you’re caught feeding an alligator, you can be fined $200 or sentenced to 30 days in jail.

There are cases of humans provoking gators into attacking them. Rhodes tells of a golfer who hit his ball near a gator that was sunning itself on a Hilton Head fairway, then smacked the animal with his golf club in the process of recovering the ball. The gator bit the golfer. “The gator did what you would do if someone hit you with a golf club,” says Rhodes. There have been reports of people being pursued by gators, but Rhodes says he’s handled in excess of 3,000 of the animals and has never been chased.

Rhodes’s rules for coexisting with gators: Don’t feed them; they find plenty to eat in the form of insects, crustaceans, fish, and snakes. Don’t tease them. For goodness sake, don’t try to pet them. Look at them all you want but do so from afar. “Give the animal the respect it deserves,” says Rhodes. “It has as much right to be here as the deer, squirrels, and people.”