For many of us, spotting an alligator in the wild might signal that it’s time to start running. But fear not, despite that sinister looking grin, alligators rarely make unprovoked attacks on humans. In fact, even though they possess the strongest bite of any living animal, alligators will typically avoid contact with us.
Louisiana didn't always have such an abundant alligator population. In the early 1960s, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries noticed a massive drop in the alligator population. Poachers, eager to make a buck, were killing alligators and selling the much-coveted skins to the fashion industry. Since then, conservation programs help ensure their survival. Alligator ranches incubate eggs found in the wild and then release 14 percent of the alligators back into their natural habitat. Since 1985, some 300,000 gators multiplied to nearly 3 million today.
It is no wonder these reptiles are referred to as the "King of the Everglades.” Typically ranging in size from eight to 15 feet and living for up to 80 years, the force of their famed bite is roughly equivalent to a small car being dropped upon you. A car with teeth. Ironically, their spoon-shaped jaw makes it difficult for them to pick up food. They compensate by typically swallowing (whole) anything surrounding the meal at hand. Their strong stomach acids mean that even steel - like a discarded license plate - can be digested. Sensors inside their jaws allow them to detect subtle movement in the water, helping them locate potential food sources.
The Pelican State offers a wealth of opportunities to get close to these reptiles at various Louisiana attractions without the potential dangers of meeting one in the wild. On Cajun Pride Swamp Tours in LaPlace, they lurk beneath the water with just their eyes and a bit of snout showing. Eccentric tour guides regale you with information and tales of gator wrestling.
If you're a night owl, take off at sunset for a evening tour of the Honey Island Swamp with Cajun Encounters Tours. Make sure to ask about the Honey Island Swamp Monster. Native language tour guides can be arranged for French, Spanish, Italian and Arabic groups.
Adventure-seekers will get their adrenaline pumping on cajun swamp kayak tours with Champagne's Cajun Swamp Tours in Breaux Bridge. Their kayak tours through the Lake Martin swamp will bring you up close and personal with gators and other wildlife. If you prefer soft-adventure, Champagne's offers traditional boat and handicap-accessible tours too.
In addition to demonstrations with live gators, the tours at Insta-Gator Ranch & Hatchery in Covington detail the state conservation and ranching efforts. You can even take home a photo of yourself holding an alligator (with jaw taped firmly shut of course).
If you're traveling across I-10 with no time for a tour, hop off exit 64 for a pitstop in Jennings to play with the baby gators at the Gator Chateau at the Jeff Davis Parish Visitor's Center complex at the Louisiana Oil and Gas Park.
You can also visit the Bayou Pierre Alligator Park, just outside of Natchitoches, where your alligator sightings can be followed by a sampling of gator-themed cuisine. The elusive albino alligator, first discovered in Louisiana, can be viewed at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans. Their haunting and beautifully pale skin makes them extremely vulnerable to predators and very few remain today.
See more about Louisiana's swamplands and marsh denizens at Atchafalaya.org.