After three months of living in fear, Louisiana resident Sarah Loughlin decides it’s time to face North America’s biggest reptile.
Palms sweaty. Hands shaking. I stand in the midday heat.
‘Pick it up.’
‘No, I can’t, what if it bites me.’
‘You’ll be fine, go on, just touch it.’
‘Ohhh, look at its eyes though, it wants to eat me.’
Standing between two 11 year olds happily stroking their baby alligators, I know it’s now or never. I reach into the pool and pick him up. I am surprised at how soft he feels. Although scaly looking, the under belly of this tiny beast is smooth, almost silky. With his mouth taped shut, so small he fits in the palm of my hand, he looks almost harmless. ‘There you go’, mocks my roommate Steph, ‘Kinda cute, huh’.
I look into the little gator’s eyes and he blinks sideways, ‘whoa, that’s weird,’ I say. Our tour guide Andy, attempting to stop the kids from using the alligators as weapons, shouts across the group, ‘They have two sets of eyelids, but that is not the most interesting fact about them. During the 63-day incubation period, the temperature of the nest determines the sex of the babies’. Looking at them up-close, maybe they aren’t all that bad; I think back to my first conversation on the subject.
‘You know there are alligators there, I don’t think it’s a good idea,’ Dad reasoned with me. ‘Why can’t you just stay in London this summer and live at the lake like last year.’ I had heard this every week since I booked my flight. ‘Dad, stop trying to scare me, I told you this is a great opportunity.’ Silence. ‘I looked it up, one third of Louisiana’s population are alligators!’ he said. Perhaps he had a point. As the weeks went on I thought about nothing but alligators; I even started dreaming about them. By the time my plane touched down in Baton Rouge a month later I was convinced I would be facing a daily battle for survival against these huge prehistoric monsters.
Arriving at my new home I mentioned my fear of the deadly reptiles, ‘Alligators?’ Jay, the owner of the lake laughed, ‘We haven’t seen a gator here for years. They only come here as a last resort, if there is a real drought. They can walk for miles to find water you know, but they’re lazy, they won’t come here unless they need to.’ Despite being a seasoned sun worshiper I instantly began to pray for a stormy summer.
Following Andy around the working alligator farm, the first thing I notice in the sheds is the offensive smell. Not all that surprising for a small shed filled with hundreds of alligators. One thing I had always assumed after watching Hollywood movies was that an Alligator would attack you instantly. Andy attempts to prove this theory wrong as he throws a live mouse in to one on of the pens. To my surprise the alligators do not move. As the tiny mouse swims around in the pond he passes next to an alligators mouth, the alligator makes a vague attempt to snap it up, but just misses it, unfussed he goes back to relaxing in the cool water. ‘Alligators can be very gentle,’ says Andy. ‘The babies can break themselves out of their eggs, but if they struggle, the mama gator will take them in her mouth and chew them a little to help them out.’ Not convinced by this coy act they were putting on I wonder if they simply aren’t hungry. It’s 3pm and we are the last tour of the day, maybe this nonchalance is the result of a full stomach. As I mulled over my supposedly irrational fear of alligators, I couldn’t help thinking that in the event that I come across a starved alligator, it might be a different story.
After getting up close and personal with some of these reptiles, it was time to see them in action. Just outside New Orleans in the wetlands of the Honey Island Swamp, we take to a small boat and make off through the narrow waters. ‘I’m not sure if this is safe you know,’ I say worriedly to our boat driver Billy, ‘I read that alligators can jump their whole length out of the water! What if they get in the boat?’ ‘We’ll be fine,’ says Billy ‘No one’s died…this week,’ he laughs and continues to take us further into the swamp.
The swamp, only a few miles from the bustling party town of New Orleans, is peaceful. Birds fly overhead, and two racoons chase the boat along the bank, diving in and out of the leafy foliage play fighting with each other. A thin layer of green moss stretches out across the water in front of us, so still and un-disturbed it seems as if you could step out of the boat on to it. The trees grow upwards from this meadow mirage creating thin corridors splitting off in all directions. Passing by a Cajun village, only accessible by boat, two locals sitting on their deck wave hello to us. I notice their alternative to air-conditioning: a sprinkler system spraying cool water on the corrugated iron roof of their hut. Out of the corner of my eye I notice where the decking meets the water, on a small branch, three little tortoises sunning themselves.
Billy introduces us to some of the local Alligators, coaxing them toward the boat with hotdog sausages on a long wooden stick. One of the larger animals approaches us, snorting and snuffling like a dog. ‘This is Broke-Jaw-Betty, poor little lady near on lost her life in a fight with another gator, she still likes marshmallows though!’ he says as he squashes two fluffy pink marshmallows on to the end of his stick. I made a mental note to always carry marshmallows as we carried on drifting along the calm waters of the bayou.
Insta-Gator Ranch & Hatchery $16 per adult (+$5 for baby gators) http://www.insta-gatorranch.com
Cajun Encounters $49 per adult with transport from your New Orleans hotel http://www.cajunencounters.com