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written by
Stephanie Hunt

Meet Your Neighbor

photographs by

Volume: 32

Beast of bony armor and elongated grace, the alligator is a majestic, if oft-misunderstood, creature: An ode to Kiawah Island’s ancient and most resilient resident.

Its tail is a slashing turbine of fierce power. It’s eyes, wizened slits encased in emerald, mesmerizingly lazy yet alert and perched high on the skull—ah yes, the better to see you with. And those mighty jaws, those jigsawed incisors. Perpetually showcased in an eerie grin, an alligator’s teeth are like the creature itself, enduring and efficient. When one tooth wears down, it is replaced—up to three thousand in an animal’s lifetime—a regenerative mastication machine. 

Beast of bony armor and elongated grace, the alligator is a majestic, if oft-misunderstood, creature. Long before the Kiawah Indians roamed this island, long before the British colonized and Patriots defended and Confederates camped out, eons before tourists traveled here, before beachwalkers walked and golfers carted about, Alligator mississippiensis lurked amidst marshes and slithered through ponds—the Lowcountry’s primordial resident.

As subliminal reptiles, alligators exist in the surface tension, the in-between above water and below, and their very presence is a lesson in low-key contentedness. Weighing up to one thousand pounds, they only call attention to themselves when feeling amorous. Their love song is a combination roar and bellow that will rattle your bones and deliver enough sonic juju to make water skitter and dance. Otherwise they are silent, patient hunters, their mud-gray osteoderms ideal camouflage for a duck-and-cover lifestyle. Yet alligators are still very much present on the Island; some seven hundred of them make Kiawah home. “If there’s a pond, there’s a gator or two,” says Elizabeth King, the Resort’s director of outdoor programs. 

Kiawah’s alligators, like all those north of Florida, are one of two crocodilian species found in the United States. They are ubiquitous to this island landscape, part and parcel of its endless freshwater ponds and lagoons, brackish creeks and marshes. In terms of taxonomy, they are archosaurs, “more closely related to birds and dinosaurs than lizards and snakes,” says Jeffrey Camper in The Reptiles of South Carolina. You’ll find them silently basking on banks, occasionally meandering across a bike path, or more likely—idling mid-pond, practicing the lost art of doing as little as possible.

Indeed alligators are laid-back icons of a prehistoric work ethic, one we might do well to emulate: conserve energy; move slowly and almost imperceptibly but with balletic ease; be inconspicuous; eat only when hungry and only what you need; rest a lot, preferably in a warm, sunny spot; ignore gawkers; eschew hashtags and selfies. 

“Big Al,” however, might be an exception. A fixture on the River Course, Big Al doesn’t seem to mind the limelight, or certainly didn’t in March 2017, when he paraded his behemoth bod in full stride right up to golfers playing in the Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic’s Tenth Annual Celebrity Golf Invitational. Though not officially invited, Big Al quickly became the biggest celebrity in the tournament, and a video of his impressive girth and reptilian strut made national news, from CNN and USA Today to CBS Sports. “He was huge, literally a dinosaur,” said Carrie Moores of the Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic, who somewhat breathlessly shot the soon-to-go-viral video. 

Who wouldn’t be a bit unnerved by a massive dragon swaggering toward you? But Big Al had no malintent; he was merely lumbering his fourteen-foot-long body toward a nearby lagoon, past the golfers in his path. “Yep, he’s a regular, particularly around hole number five,” acknowledges River Course golf pro Mike Perkins. Although Big Al hasn’t pulled any media stunts lately. He did, however, catch the eye, and lens, of National Geographic photographer Ralph Lee Hopkins, who has photographed wild, exotic, and endangered animals all over the globe and marveled at Big Al’s subdued majesty. “Wow, he’s something else,” said Hopkins, crouching low to zoom in at gator eye-level, and inching just a tad bit closer, but not too close. 

Hopkins is a pro and knows that keeping a respectable distance from any wild animal, especially one as powerful and quick as an alligator (despite their lazy vibe, gators can lunge fast and run up to nine miles an hour), is wise both for the onlooker’s safety as well as for the alligator’s well-being. “They are unpredictable animals, and mothers can be fiercely protective, so all alligators are best observed from afar, ideally at least sixty feet away,” says King. “And never ever feed an alligator! We don’t want alligators to associate humans with food.” 

Respecting and protecting alligators as an integral part of the Kiawah environment is imperative, explains Town of Kiawah Island wildlife biologist Jim Jordan. Jordan and his team monitor the resident alligator population, including capturing any “nuisance” gators. “But they only become a nuisance when people feed them,” he explains. A healthy, wild alligator is not interested in humans. Since 2016 Jordan’s team has been tagging alligators to better understand their movement and activity, and they added GPS tracking in 2017 as part of a broader Clemson-led study and survey of alligator behavior.  

“The fact that they are here means that we are doing something right,” says Jordan. As apex predators, alligators are critical in helping maintain a balanced ecosystem, including keeping animal populations in check. Being at the top of the food chain also makes alligators a sentinel species, meaning that their health is an indication of the health of the general environment. The adage “you are what you eat” holds true. An adult alligator sometimes eats only one meal a month, but if toxins and contaminants show up in its system, red flags should go up.  

The late endocrinologist and MUSC professor Dr. Louis Guillette knew this well. A global expert in alligator biology, Dr. Guillette served as director of Marine Biomedicine and Environmental Sciences at MUSC, holding an endowed chair in marine genomics. He pioneered studies that explored how toxic pollutants affect the sex habits of alligators and crocodiles, and he translated this research into promoting the decrease in birth defects in pregnant women. He lectured on alligators for the Kiawah Conservancy and spent time in the field with the Kiawah’s alligator population. 

Experts like Guillette and Jordan respect the staying power and resilience of these ancient creatures that have successfully survived and adapted over the last ten million years. As do other human Island residents and visitors who pause in awe when spotting an alligator sunning on the banks of a creek or pond. This happy human/wildlife cohabitation and respect for Kiawah’s crocodilians bodes well for both two-legged residents and the squat four-legged, long-tailed ones. As Dr. Guillette was known to say, “If the environment is safe for alligators, it is safe for us.”  — S.H.

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