OCALA, Fla. (AP) – A woman from Florida who floated on a paddle board in the Silver River used her paddle to repel a large alligator that swam directly towards her in a spooky and close encounter captured in videos and striking photographs.
The alligator came within inches of Vicki Baker, 60, of Ocala on September 8. She estimated the reptile to be almost as long as her 10-foot (3-meter) paddleboard. It hissed loudly at him. She said at one point he opened his mouth, revealing large teeth and powerful jaw as he floated to the surface.
“What are you doing? Get away from me! Get away from me!” she cried at the alligator as he swam inches from his paddle board. “No! Oh my God, I had to push him back with my paddle!
Nearby, off-camera in the video, a Silver Springs State Park ranger can be heard over a loudspeaker advising him, “Ma’am, I’m going to suggest backing off since you just drove him pretty crazy. “
A week later, in her first in-depth interview on the incident, Baker said she remained puzzled over the encounter. She said she assumed someone else on the water fed the alligator, desensitizing it to humans and helping it associate the paddlers on the river with food. So far, more than a million people have viewed photos and videos of the meeting.
“I was scared,” she said. “You can hear it in my voice that I was really scared. I’ve seen them all my life and I’ve never been scared.
The alligator encounter happened near Florida’s famous Silver Springs, where deep springs feed the Silver River and the water is so incredibly clear that tourists board glass-bottomed boats. The park enforces a no-swim rule but allows paddlers with canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards. Alligators, large turtles, manatees, and even a colony of monkeys are commonly seen in the area.
“We had just decided to have lunch taking pictures of the blue hole, and this alligator came out of nowhere,” Baker said in an interview Wednesday morning. “He came straight for my paddle board.”
In one photograph, Baker is seen pulling his arms and legs back onto the paddleboard and holding his long paddle in defense.
Baker said the entire encounter lasted less than five minutes, some of which she and her friends videotaped and photographs. Her friends were kayaking nearby, she said, and the alligator dodged them.
The alligator’s behavior was a mystery to experts. State wildlife officials were still deciding what to do with the reptile – if at all, this week. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have launched formal investigations into the alligator.
The commission said its biologists were studying Baker’s video to understand the alligator’s behavior.
“We didn’t have an officer there, so now we’re going to have to investigate and interview witnesses to paint a picture of what really happened,” said Chad Weber, spokesperson for the commission.
Sidney Godfrey, a University of Florida wildlife biologist on his “Croc Docs” team, said video of the encounter was not enough to draw any conclusions.
“This animal has probably had a lot of previous human interactions, people are probably feeding it,” he said. “They get too close to people and you have encounters like that.”
Baker said she had paddled the same river two days earlier and saw a large alligator aggressively approach another group in the water. She thinks it was the same alligator. She said after meeting she showed her video to Keith Aliengena, a state park services specialist, who said someone should have reported the previous incident.
The alligator can be removed from the area in the same way that nuisance alligators are generally removed from residential areas.
Baker said she hopes the famous alligator survives no matter where it ends up.
“I don’t want to see him killed,” she said.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service from the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida. The reporter can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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