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In the film ‘The Waterboy’, a teacher asked: “Why are alligators so aggressive?”
The waterboy replied: “Momma tells me alligators are ornery because they have all those teeth but no toothbrush!”
Nigel Marven, the wild life expert, was not content with what his mother told him about alligators. He spent a year in Southern Florida in 2002 studying their ways and making films about them.
A collection of his experiences on film are called ‘Nigel Marven’s Alligator Adventure’. Nigel, back in England, had noticed an advertisement which read:
“Wanted! Alligator Wrestler. Must Be Brave and a Risk Taker!!! No Experience Needed.”
The ad described Nigel exactly. Alligator wrestlers were needed because Southern Florida was in its second year of drought. Nigel commented:
“One and a half million alligators are getting desperate and have started coming into town in search of water causing big problems. That’s where my special mission will come in – dealing with nuisance alligators.”
Nigel realized that some kind of training would help him to survive and to succeed in his job. He chose to train with an experienced alligator wrestler, a Miccosukee Indian, called Kenny.
The Miccosukee have lived and hunted alligators in this area for centuries.
An alligator’s jaws have a crushing power of 3000lbs per square inch. Their teeth are not as sharp as crocodiles so they do not chew their prey. They thrash their victims around till body parts are ripped off and can be swallowed whole.
Another difference is that crocodile snouts are narrow and pointed whereas alligator snouts are broad and round.
Kenny waved his hat in front of the eyes of a ten foot alligator to get it to open its mouth. He tapped above its snout several times with his hand
He then put his hand close to its mouth. When it snapped its jaws shut and then opened them, he moved in fast and closed its jaws with his left palm underneath and his right palm on top. He finally gripped its jaws with his thumbs on top and his fingers underneath.
He moved closer bending the alligator’s neck back with his left knee. He then moved anticlockwise round the left side of the alligator stepping first with his right leg, holding its jaws shut with his left hand alone until he could sit on its back pulling its head back with both hands. Again his thumbs were on top and his fingers underneath.
It was Nigel’s turn next. He had a go at a five foot alligator. What it lacked in size, it would make up for in speed. He approached it from the rear. It took him a while to get his courage up for his first move.
He then moved in fast squatting on its back just behind its front legs and covering its eyes with his left hand which also slammed its head towards the ground. This closed its mouth so Nigel could grab its jaws with his thumbs on top of its upper jaw and his fingers underneath the lower jaw.
To tie up its jaws he would have to bend its neck back until the alligator’s closed snout could be held in a clamped position under his own chin! The alligator did not enjoy this experience:
“I can hear that hissing. It’s going all through my body.”
He got off by putting its head down and then moving quickly away from its jaws.
Nigel decided he had learned enough grappling techniques and headed off to see the creatures in the wild. He was, after all, a wild life scientist as well as an alligator wrestler!
That evening he travelled to a small pool packed with alligators. He could see orange red eyes and feel the tension in the air. It would have been suicide to try and swim in this pool so he punted his way in.
One alligator came right up alongside his boat:
“They are curious about anything new and it is clear they are really hungry.
This is magical. You can see them gliding through the water. Some are hunting.
“They’ve eaten all the turtles and the fish and all there is left is each other. The smaller alligators try to keep out of the way of the bigger ones by sticking to the shallows but sometimes there is no escape.”
One huge alligator attacked an adolescent alligator:
“It is shaking it like a dog shaking a rat. They can’t chew. They can only grip so they thrash and crash until they dismember the bodies of large prey.”
Later in daylight, Nigel moved close in the shallows to a large alligator and started tapping it on top of its nostrils until it opened its mouth wide. It clearly enjoyed having its snout rubbed.
Nigel put one hand in its mouth to point out the stubs of teeth that the alligator grips with. He was at the same time talking to and looking at the camera!
He then put his head in its mouth to give viewers a closer look at the throat! A camera was attached to his forehead. An alligator has no lips to seal its mouth from water so it has a false palate which seals its throat instead.
Nigel was determined to show a close up of this amazing design feature. He moved his head further and further in. Suddenly, the alligator lost patience and snapped its jaws twice.
Nigel narrowly escaped without losing his head or his arm not to mention the camera!
“Wow! Wow! I had to be fast there, didn’t I really? Pheaw! That nearly spoiled my weekend!”
Alligators cannot survive for long outside water so, in times of drought, they create their own ponds or ’swimming pools’. They push mud back with their front legs and then sweep it away with their back legs and tails. These pools help other species to survive as well.
Nigel decided to explore a pool ‘owned’ by a large female alligator. He entered the pool while the alligator was recharging her energies at the side of the pool in the sun. He estimated this would take about half an hour.
He managed to unearth a salamander and an aggressively vicious snapping turtle that was only too keen to attack both him and the cameraman! Its jaws are designed for cutting and not grinding. A bite could snip off a finger or thumb.
Throughout the program, Nigel was full of enthusiasm. He was delighted to discover some of the most horrendous looking creatures that most people would pay good money to avoid.
He only just escaped the pool before the ‘owner’ reached him.
His next ‘adventure’ was to swim with huge bull alligators and female alligators during their mating rituals. He was told by an expert to keep at least twenty feet away from the bulls, to keep low in the water and to splash water towards an alligator if it moved towards him.
He ignored some of this advice and got within six feet of a huge bull alligator. The bulls lift their heads and tails high out of the water and bellow as part of the courting ritual.
They vibrate so much with the sound of the bellow and a deeper sound below the level of human hearing, that the water ‘dances’ in the air above their backs.
Female alligators bellow too but at a higher more ladylike pitch. The water does not dance on their backs.
Nigel entered the water, as planned, to get closer to the sounds and sights of this magical scene.
He was so absorbed in watching the amazing mating ritual of one bull that he failed to notice an alligator stalking him. Fortunately, he turned and saw it in time. The water was shallow and this helped him get out unscathed.
During mating the female is submerged underneath and if the pair gets carried away she may even drown. Normally, however, her eggs are fertilized and she lays them within two or three weeks and then after two or three months the little alligators emerge.
Nigel next swam with some manatees. These peaceful mammals can be fifteen feet long and weigh 3000 pounds – as much as a car or a rhinoceros.
They eat a hundred pounds of green stuff a day and have 150 foot long intestines to process all the plants they eat. Water hyacinths are their main diet in Florida.
They are so large that they do not need to fear the alligators. They usually come up to breathe every four minutes or so but can stay submerged for over sixteen minutes.
At one point an American crocodile joined the swimming party. There are only about 500 American crocodiles left – all in Florida. Nigel’s reaction was typical:
“For me swimming with one is a privilege indeed.”
In the next ‘adventure’, Nigel drew away an eight foot mother alligator from her hatching eggs so that he could get close enough to do some research. He was thrilled to hear the babies chirping as they hatched.
As he came close, she turned and snapped at him with stunning speed. But he backed off with equal speed. Maybe she was just snapping her jaws together to frighten him away. She snapped again.
He encouraged her to come towards him once more and tripped over some tree roots on his left. Luckily, he kept on his feet and survived yet again!
“Cor! That snap really got my heart beating. If they run at you they can run at twelve miles an hour. I should be able to out run her. Wow! Come on, Mum! Wow!” Each time Nigel said ‘Wow!’ the alligator came at him.
Eventually, Nigel lay close and low on the ground watching entranced as she helped the baby alligators to hatch by rolling the eggs around in her mouth:
“Astounding animal behaviour – this is what I live for. This gets the blood coursing through my veins. The baby alligators walk towards their mum. They know that she’s the best way to get to the water.”
When she went off to take one of two of her babies to the water, he examined the others to see what sex they were. Their sex is determined by the temperature they are incubated at:
“This is ridiculous! These are reptiles but I feel like a proud father. This is the first day of these little hatchling lives. They could live to fifty.”
Nigel also found some baby turtles in the alligator nest. He carried these to the water in his hands.
Alligator hatchlings stay together as a family for two or three years but only a few will make it to adulthood.
From day one they catch food for themselves but they are also hunted by predators like otters. The Mother alligator can’t be everywhere at once especially when she has about forty baby alligators to protect.
There is one alligator for every ten people in Florida. They can be tempted by different kinds of food like dogs. They take about a hundred a year but it is not just pets that are in jeopardy. Alligators can turn up anywhere. Fortunately attacks on humans are extremely rare.
Nigel met fourteen year old Edna Wilkes and her friend Amanda. They were swimming at night in a lake when Edna was attacked by an alligator. She had never seen alligators in that lake before and wasn’t scared about swimming there.
She thought her friend Mark was squeezing her arm and said: “Mark! Stop playing around!” Then she saw a snout. Her arm was in the alligator’s jaws.
She was pulled underwater before she had a chance to scream and the alligator started to spin. Alligators drown their prey and spin to tear off chunks of flesh.
Her friend could not ‘bear to see her die’ and handed her a board that Edna got her upper body onto. Edna used her free right arm to try to open the alligator’s mouth and to ‘mess’ with him:
“I guess I irritated him and he let me go!”
Edna kept her left arm although it had multiple fractures.
Now it was time for Nigel to put his skills and knowledge to the test.
A nuisance alligator had been spotted in a swimming pool. It was large and on the bottom of the pool. Nigel would have to swim underwater to capture it with his bare hands.
He was, not surprisingly, nervous. He asked for advice from Joe, an expert friend.
Joe advised: “Be slow, careful and deliberate. Cover the eyes and make sure the mouth is closed before grabbing its snout. If necessary, push its head to the bottom of the pool to close its mouth.”
Nigel’s swam up behind the alligator along its back His first attempt to grab its closed snout failed and he came up gasping for air. On the second attempt:
“His jaws just missed me!”
Third time lucky – he swam above the alligator and grabbed the snout with the jaws closed with his left hand. He brought the alligator in near the steps into the pool. His friend Joe helped him tape the mouth shut and then lift it out of the pool
As usual, Nigel saw the positives of this terrifying experience:
“This bloke gave me a beautiful ride in the swimming pool.”
Florida laws said that a nuisance alligator over four feet long should be killed but Nigel made sure that this one was released into an Everglades sanctuary where it could live on for many years to come. He commented:
“I just hope that the people in Florida never lose patience with their prehistoric neighbours. I have enjoyed my alligator adventure so much.”
My step brother emailed me this poem which shows that alligators are not necessarily the guilty party when it comes to attacks on human beings! It is called ‘The Purist’ by Ogden Nash:
I give you now Professor Twist,
A conscientious scientist,
Trustees exclaimed, “He never bungles!”
And sent him off to distant jungles.
Camped on a tropic riverside,
One day he missed his loving bride.
She had, the guide informed him later,
Been eaten by an alligator.
Professor Twist could not but smile.
“You mean,” he said, “a crocodile.”
Several success and survival tips can be learned from Nigel’s ‘adventures’.
Get training from the best in the business. Nigel sought advice from at least three experts. He also applied their advice although not all of it.
Maintain your enthusiasm for what you are doing even if you make mistakes. Churchill defined success as going from one failure to another without losing your enthusiasm. Nigel did not give up in the swimming pool.
Follow your passions. Nigel had bathed at home in his bath with young caymans from an early age. He later swam with alligators. He loved finding out about animals and reptiles.
Keep your childhood curiosity and sense of wonder so that you can enjoy your experiences on this amazing planet.
Chrissy Ogden wrote: ‘Keeping in touch with childhood memories keeps us believing in life’s simplest pleasures like a rainy afternoon, a swing set, and a giant puddle to play in.’ All through the film Nigel was playing in giant puddles.
Knowledge and fascination can lessen fear and panic. Nigel’s mind was so filled with his curiosity about the creatures he met up with that it did not have room for too much fear. Keep learning new things and your life will be less anxious and less fearful.
Don’t give up even if you feel your life is in the grip of an ‘alligator’ like debt or illness.
Be willing to take risks although I would not advise taking Nigel as your role model. I just checked on the internet to see if he is still alive. He is!