One of the most common questions I get on boat tours is "are we going to see an alligator?" While alligators are a common sight in and around Lowcountry ponds we rarely see them in the estuary. Alligators are freshwater animals and prefer not to enter salt water. Following a period of heavy rainfall or extreme drought small/weak/sick individuals are washed or pushed out of their lake homes and find themselves in our saltwater creeks. It's not usually thrilled to be there. Some theories say that gators may take a saltwater "bath" to remove freshwater parasites.
The first gator I came across in saltwater was resting next to the dock on Bulls Island in Cape Romain. The ferry passengers weren't impressed. Then there was the one who climbed out of the surf near the Folly Beach Pier.
If you see an alligator on the beach (or anywhere!) it's best to give it space and let it continue resting where it is. Just remember not to get between the gator and it's water; if scared it will make a beeline for the nearest water where it can slink to safety!
Alligators are ectotherms, meaning they rely on their environment to regulate body heat. Below 55 degrees F. gators are usually found in burrows where they lay dormant, waiting for temperatures to rise. On a nice sunny spring day ponds will be lined with gators basking in the sun to warm up. As the days heat up they cool off in the water.
Alligators are ambush predators and prefer prey they can eat in one bite. Their pitted bones allows them to sense vibrations in the water and help them accurately grab anything swimming by. If an individual is lucky enough to score larger prey, like a deer, they will tuck it under a sunken log to allow it to decay a bit before eating it. Should the gator break a tooth while chowing down it keeps another underneath, stacked like Solo cups, waiting to be put into use. An adult may go through 3,000 teeth in it's 50 years of life!
Caw Caw Interpretive Center and Bulls Island are some of my favorite spots near Charleston to see alligators in the wild. Or visit your favorite golf course!