This article looks at whether it is safe to kayak in alligator-infested waters and whether it’s true that alligators attack kayaks.
We also give some tips on their behavior patterns, what to do if you encounter an alligator swimming toward you, and discuss whether inflatable kayaks are riskier than others. Alligator attacks on kayakers have been known to occur, so we also offer some safety advice.
Although attacks on kayaks are very rare, they do happen, so kayakers need to keep a safe distance. Kayaking with alligators during the mating season increases the risk, as does hanging fish from the boat when kayak fishing.
The best way to avoid alligators is not to go on a kayak trip in gator territory.
Alligators are top predators in waterways around the country and large enough to seriously injure or kill a kayaker who falls into the water. However, the statistics on attacks on kayaks are extremely low and comparable to shark attacks on surfers.
That said, they can happen as one kayaker on North Carolina’s Waccamaw River discovered in 2020. Fortunately, he escaped without injury.
Most Alligator Attacks Occur When People Are Swimming or Fishing
A kayak is an inanimate object that doesn’t make a lot of splashing sounds or give off warmth and chemical signals like a swimmer. Adult alligators will therefore not usually associate it with prey and leave it alone – most of the time.
A U.S. study on alligator attacks on humans in the period between 1948 and 2004 noted that 376 injuries and 15 deaths occured due to alligator encounters.
The majority of the attacks were caused by people attempting to feed alligators or interact with them, or when swimming or fishing. The study showed that these three activities accounted for around 44% of attacks.
Other activities that rated attacks included wading or walking in water (5.3%), retrieving golf balls (9.5%), and snorkeling (4.3%).
Attacks while working on, or falling out of, a boat; skiing; and canoeing only added up to 5.2%.
Alligators are not usually aggressive towards humans, but if they are habituated to humans because they’ve been fed, or a person approaches a bank on which mother alligators are with baby alligators, attacks can occur.
It is safe to assume that if you see young alligators, the mother alligators will be close by to protect them. A female alligator is aggressive when protecting her nest or young.
Similarly, male alligators are very aggressive during mating season when fights often occur
Tips To Avoid Being Attacked While Kayaking With Alligators
Do not approach the alligator or interact with it by striking it with a paddle or kayaking over the top of it. And always avoid feeding alligators.
Most of the time, when they’re on the bank and see an approaching kayak, the alligators tend to slip into the water, but this is generally defensive evasive action.
Agitated alligators have been known to swim underneath a kayak and overturn it, but this is also rare.
If you end up in the water, you could be in big trouble. If they don’t kill you by drowning you, even medium-sized alligators can amputate limbs and cause serious injuries.
If you can, avoid kayaking between dusk and dawn because alligators are cold-blooded, so this is when they are in active feeding mode.
When fishing and alligators are around, try not to make any sudden movements when landing fish.
Avoid approaching within 30m of banks where there are nesting gator females, and avoid areas with overhanging trees and floating vegetation. Nesting females protect their nest area even after their eggs hatch.
Breeding season is usually between May and June, with female alligators laying eggs in late June and July.
Do some research about when alligators start breeding in your area, and on alligator behavior, and avoid paddling at these times because the chance of an alligator attacking a human during this time greatly increases.
Keep a safe and respectful distance from alligators and avoid jerky movements that will attract their attention. If possible, avoid kayaking where you know alligators are present.
They submerge themselves completely in the water, with only their snout resurfacing periodically for air, so they are difficult to spot.
When paddling with multiple kayakers, don’t let the kayaks pack too tightly together as an alligator could see this as a threat—it might think your group is a hunting party!
Never corner alligators; try to keep a distance of around 20 feet between the nearest gator and your kayaks.
Also, avoid multiple kayaks pointing at different angles at alligators, such as when taking photographs of alligators lying in the sun.
If you know you are going kayaking in alligator country, leave your dogs at home. Their presence has been directly linked to reports of alligators attacking kayaks because dogs smell more like prey.
If an alligator hisses at you, back off calmly because it is giving you warning signs. Always be vigilant when kayaking in alligator territory and learn about alligator behaviors.
If an alligator feels threatened it will wave its tail and puff up and down in the water. If it’s clapping its jaws at you or sinking and coming up closer and closer to the kayak, heed those warning signs and move off.
What To Do If Approached By an Alligator
If an alligator approaches you, keep calm, smack the water hard with the flat of your paddle and make a loud noise. They are sensitive to sound and vibrations in the water and will usually back away.
If you kayak regularly in gator territory and often have gator encounters, keep an air horn with you. Blow it and get away as fast as you can.
Don’t panic and frantically splash the water.
If it comes too close for comfort without you noticing, smack it on the nose with your paddle. Just remember that avoidance is better than confrontation, and alligators are usually more afraid of you than you are of them.
If it swims towards the kayak, point the end of the kayak towards it and back-paddle away. Pointing the kayak at it may be enough to warn it off but always keep your eyes on it.
Are Inflatable Kayaks Riskier When Kayaking With Alligators?
Inflatable kayaks are a bit riskier, not because alligators like to attack them but because they are more easily damaged on sharp rocks and underwater branches, leading to deflation. You do not want to end up in the water with an alligator.
In the unlikely event that one does attack your inflatable kayak, its teeth can rip it pretty severely, which means that you could end up in the water with a 12- or 15-foot reptile. Inflatable kayaks are also much lighter and easier to flip.
In February 2020, an alligator left two kayakers stranded when it flipped an inflatable on the Econlockhatchee River in Florida. Fortunately, no one was killed or injured.
While inflatable kayaks don’t sink easily, and a non-inflatable kayak will not offer much protection from a direct alligator attack, the better choice is the non-inflatable.
There are plenty of beautiful kayaking destinations in the U.S. where there are no alligators.
American alligators are mostly found in the southern United States in areas with a gulf coast, for example, North Carolina and South Carolina, Florida (Prairie Creek), Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, the piney woods of Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.
The Atchafalaya Basin swamp, in New Orleans, is a notorious alligator habitat.
Having said that, the American alligator can sometimes be found in strange locations, such as in an Atlantic City swimming pool!
Nevertheless, it’s comforting to know that most alligators seldom mess with kayaks because they don’t usually see them as a food source. However, particular caution is necessary between dusk and dawn, when they are most active, and when they display aggressive behavior during breeding and the alligator mating season.
Calm, evasive distancing action when you see an aggressive alligator while kayaking is best. Ultimately, showing respect for a gator’s territory (or any wild animal’s natural habitat) will allow you to coexist safely with these fascinating prehistoric reptiles and enjoy many beautiful paddling locations.