Kayaks and Alligators: kayaking with alligators 101

If your kayaking excursions ever take you to the Southern United States, you might find yourself kayaking with alligators. Wait, kayaks and alligators in the same waters? But is it safe to kayak with alligators? Will alligators attack kayaks? It does sound a bit like nightmare fuel – but actual statistics about ‘gator ...
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Sam OBrien

Founder, Kayaking & Paddle Boarding Expert

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

If your kayaking excursions ever take you to the Southern United States, you might find yourself kayaking with alligators.

Wait, kayaks and alligators in the same waters?

But is it safe to kayak with alligators? Will alligators attack kayaks?

It does sound a bit like nightmare fuel – but actual statistics about ‘gator attacks say otherwise.

You should prepare for a kayak trip with alligators the same way you would for any other potentially hostile environment:

Understand the risks, stay alert, be prepared, and follow the rules.

I am sure you have many worries, concerns and questions. So, you better be snappy and check out this kayaker’s guide to alligators before letting fear get to you!

Alligator Behavior: Getting To Know These Prehistoric Reptiles

Large Alligator on the rive bank

If you kayak in the lower southern states from; North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama – right through to Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma then the chances of coming face-to-face with alligators while kayaking are pretty high.

But kayaking with alligators doesn’t necessarily have to spell disaster. Once you have had a few gator encounters you will get accustomed – well, sort of – to their presence, you’ll learn to appreciate seeing these prehistoric reptiles in their natural habitat.

You don’t want to get too nonchalant and laid-back about being around alligators while kayaking, though. Having a basic understanding of alligator behaviors is still crucial.

Recognizing danger signs and making informed decisions while on the water could – quite literally – make a difference between life and death.

When Are Alligators Most Active?

Alligators are ambush, sit-and-wait predators that will remain under the surface, submerged for hours – with only their snout resurfacing periodically for air – waiting for prey to come near.

And yes, that sounds scary as heck.

More often than not, though, alligators tend to be reclusive and keep to themselves; you won’t catch them moving around much in the daytime. In fact, as intimidating as full-grown alligators may seem, if you encounter one during the day, it might appear lazy – docile, even.

Come nightfall, and it’s a whole different story out there in the swamps and marshes, though. Alligators, like many other nocturnal predators, tend to be most active between dusk and dawn.

Watch Baby Alligators Hunt at Night

When Are Alligators Most Aggressive?

As ridiculous as the idea of a 13-foot prehistoric predator shying away from a human in a kayak sounds, for the most part.

The focus should be on the “for the most part” portion of that sentence, though:

Alligators do prefer to spend their days hanging out near the shore and basking in the sun.

But when springtime rolls around, bringing warmer weather and rising temperatures, alligators will likely exhibit more aggressive behavior. That’s when the chances of attacks on kayakers tend to increase significantly.

Two reasons most likely trigger these changes in alligator behavior patterns which makes gators go from reserved to hostile:

  • Mating Season – April marks the start of alligator breeding season, which usually lasts all the way up to late June. That’s when alligators – especially males – become more active, with very aggressive behavior, and highly territorial.  
Alligators Showing Off for Mating Season | Animal Super Senses | BBC Earth
  • Mother Alligators – Female alligators will build their nest in sheltered areas near the water and guard it throughout the incubation period and up to two years after hatching. Yes, baby alligators might seem cute but don’t approach or attempt to handle them. This also goes for alligator eggs You do not want to mess with mother alligators; they will not hesitate to lunge at anything – or anyone – they perceive as a threat to their young.
mama alligator guarding her nest - August 17, 2018

Watch Out For The Warning Signs

So, how can you recognize warning signs that could indicate a not-so-pleasant encounter with this toothy predator?

Well, for starters, watch out for the actual safety signs put up to warn visitors like yourself of the presence of alligators in the area.

But more importantly, know how to recognize signs of aggression when you come across a ‘gators out in the wild.

If an alligator feels threatened, their first line of defense would be going straight into the water. In some cases, though, they’ll decide not to retreat – and will instead exhibit signs of aggression.

Here are some examples of alligator behaviors that shouldn’t be ignored: 

  • Hissing or growling
  • Opening their mouth wide
  • Snapping their jaws
  • Tail wagging (not in a your-dog-is-happy-to-see-you way)
  • Turning their head or body toward you

If you notice these behaviors when approaching an alligator, treat it as a warning, take action and back up immediately!

Alligator Safety 101: Rules Of Kayaking Through Alligator Territory

man kayaking in florida alligator country with mangroves lining the water

Is it safe to kayak with alligators? I’m about to get into the details of kayaking with alligators and how to stay safe doing it – but for now, remember this one golden rule:

These waters are their home and territory; you’re nothing but a visitor in their kingdom. So, treat it as such, respect the alligators – and keep your distance.

What To Do When An Alligator Approaches Your Kayak?

Large alligator in the swamp land of Florida

The question on every paddlers lips is; do alligators attack kayaks? 

No, not under normal conditions – alligator attacks are a rare occurrence and normally have a good reason –  and typical people are to blame!

I know that’s not very reassuring considering we’re talking about prehistoric reptile-looking predators, but they will generally steer clear of humans.  

Mating season carries the highest risk of an alligator attack, but even then, kayakers find as long as they keep their distance the alligators pay very little attention to them.

What happens when they don’t, though?

Well, as uncommon as it is, especially in low human traffic areas, there are two situations why an alligator might approach you:

One, the ‘gator was fed by other visitors, and is turning to you for food. And two, it’s agitated and territorial.

Either way, there is a risk of an attack.

So, what do you do?

For starters, don’t panic. Paddle away as quickly as possible until the alligator stops paying attention to your presence – but remain calm doing it.

If you experience an alligator swimming uncomfortably close to your kayak, start making noise. Hit the kayak’s side with the paddle, blow your PFD whistle, or use an air horn. Some kayakers even carry a rubber mallet with them for this purpose.

Worst-case scenario, they’ll lunge at the kayak in an attempt to bite you. Swing your paddle and aim for the snout. 

Be sure to report encounters with alligators that show no wariness around people to the local state department for fish and game, and park authorities. 

Don’t Block The Alligator’s Path To The Water

Alligator Ready to Snap Mouth

You might be capable of outrunning an alligator on land, but the water?

Well, let’s just say that you should maintain a safe and respectful distance. And by “safe and respectful,” I mean at least 60 feet.

Anything less than 60 miles of distance between the two of you and you’re giving the ‘gator a perfect opportunity to lunge at you.

Also, alligators will generally try to retreat into the water when they encounter humans. On that note, one thing you should never – ever – do is get so close that you block their escape route to the water.

A cornered ‘gator is a threatened ‘gator; if your presence makes them feel endangered or vulnerable in any way, they’ll be far more likely to attack. 

Leave The Pets & Small Children At Home

The first rule of kayaking through alligator territory with pets or young children onboard is:

Please don’t do it, ever!

There are many wonderful opportunities to introduce your kids or four-legged best friend to the exciting world of kayaking – but this isn’t one of them.

I cannot tell you how terrible this idea is – even if your are used to kayaking with kids, and this isn’t your first trip in alligator territory. It doesn’t look like it, but what you’re essentially doing by bringing small pets or animals, such as a dog, along is ringing a giant dinner bell for the predators lurking underwater.

You’re not their primary food source, but small animals? To a hungry alligator, they look like an easy opportunity to score a tasty meal – an experience which is best avoided.

Why Feeding The Alligators Is A Bad Idea (Besides Being Illegal)

Caution warning sign. Do not feed alligators. On alligator farm in Florida Everglades National park, USA warning visitors not to feed animals

I’m sure feeding a 13-foot alligator would make for a cool kayaking story – but there’s a reason why it’s illegal.

What’s the big deal with feeding alligators out in the wild, anyway? It’s not like you’re hurting anyone.

Well, that’s not entirely true.

Any wild animal will get used to being fed rather quickly – and alligators are no exception. It takes very little for them to figure out that humans are a potential source of food. The issue here is that you now have a deadly predator that is no longer afraid of approaching humans – simply because visitors in the past fed it.

But let me ask you something:

What happens when an alligator swims toward your kayak, and you have no food to give? You’ll get attacked, and the alligator will be put down; that’s what.

Please don’t feed the alligators; the long-term consequences are not worth it. 

What About Kayak Fishing Near Alligators?

Southern States’ lakes, rivers, canals, swamps, and marshes – fresh or brackish – are often home to alligators.  Although they can live in a range of habits, and there been reported sightings of alligators around the gulf coast, they can only tolerate a few hours in salt water – therefore it’s not typical for a paddler to come across an alligator whilst fishing near the sea.

I’m not saying you should skip kayak fishing in these places. On the contrary, healthy populations of alligators are often a pretty good indicator of productive fishing grounds.

That Is NOT a Catfish on the End of the Line

So, if kayak fishing is your thing, by all means, give one of these ‘gator habitats a try – but keep in mind the question;  do alligators attack kayaks? Yes, in-directly as that they’ll try to steal your catch:

They’ll wait for you to catch a fish and then snatch it right off the line – but your hand might be up for grabs, too.

Be extra careful when you’re retrieving the fish, try to not over play the fish and aim to land it quickly, at all costs avoid dipping your hands in the water, and for ultimate safety use a fishing net to collect the catch from water – whenever possible. Lift the fish up and a way from the boat, as ‘gators love to lunge attack prey at it reaches the surface of the water.

Top fishing tips; whilst fishing, if you decide to keep your catch rather than release it, don’t use a fish stringer; it will only attract the ‘gators. A kayak cooler is a much safer option for stowing any fish you catch, as it keep it on board your fishing kayak – out of harms way. And be careful when disposing of fish scraps, as throwing them into the water may attract alligators to your area looking for a free lunch.

Lastly, when kayak fishing use an anchor and trolley system to keep the kayak steady, that way you will not unwittingly float to an area, such as the river bank, that might contain alligators. 

Kayaking With Alligators: General Tips & Advice For Safe Encounters

Kayaking with Alligators in mangrove tunnels in Everglades National park, Florida, USA

You probably get the basics of what you should and shouldn’t do when kayaking through alligator country. 

Still, a quick recap of the ground rules – with a few general tips and advice thrown in – wouldn’t hurt: 

  • DO NOT feed alligators; it’s illegal to do so under state law.
  • DO NOT get too close to the alligators; maintain your distance in the water and on land.
  • DO NOT swim or wade in areas that are known alligator habitats.
  • DO NOT go kayak fishing close to the river bank or places heavily covered by plants
  • DO NOT go kayaking alone in ‘gator territory – especially during mating season
  • DO NOT let your pets, such as a dog, or small children go near areas with alligators.
  • DO NOT agitate, harass, or tease the alligators in any way.
  • DO NOT corner alligators or block their path to the water.
  • DO NOT approach an alligator’s nest or disturb the young or baby alligators. 
  • DO NOT let your hands and feet hang off the side of the kayak, especially when fishing.
  • DO NOT use a fish stringer when fishing in an area that’s home to alligators. 

Alligators And Kayaks: Summing Things Up

Alligators are perfectly capable of being deadly to paddlers if they want to; make no mistake about it. Your average ‘gator – like the one you’ll most likely encounter on your kayaking excursions – will want nothing to do with you, though.

Sure, kayaks and alligators still don’t sound like a match made in heaven. And to be frank, you’ll never be entirely comfortable paddling by these predators – even when they’re minding their business, basking in the sun.

But you’ll learn not to panic – learn not to get too close – and learn to keep your distance – and under normal circumstances and conditions, that, along with a few key rules and basic common sense protocols, could be enough to keep you safe around alligators.

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Sam OBrien

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

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