What may have begun for a Georgia alligator as a day of sunning on the banks of the marsh ended with the approximately 5-foot long reptile nearly 20 miles out to sea, drifting in an area usually roamed by right whales, sea turtles and other marine life.
Heavy rains that washed marsh wrack and other debris miles into the sea from the mouth of the Altamaha River may be to blame for the bizarre event.
Researchers conducting North Atlantic right whale work spotted the alligator on March 9. At first, whale observers Monica Zani and Heather Foley thought the animal was debris, a partially submerged tire or possibly a dead alligator washed out to sea. After getting closer, they realized the gator was very much alive and still able to dive for short distances.
Foley snapped a few photographs before the team moved on. “Considering that we were an in inflatable boat 20 miles offshore, we didn’t want to risk having the gator inadvertently puncture the boat,” Foley said.
Not long after the encounter, the research crew came across a rip-line of marsh wrack, pollen and other debris, most likely at the edge of a freshwater plume coming from the Altamaha River after recent rains. Wrack is an accumulation of dead marsh grass.
Generally freshwater creatures by nature, alligators are fairly common in and around salt and estuarine waters along the Georgia coast, said Brad Winn, program manager for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Nongame Conservation Section.
“They feed heavily on marine fish, raccoons and feral hogs in the marshes, and swimming in the surf is not an unusual observation,” Winn said. “On more than one occasion we have pulled stingray barbs out of the cheeks of 12-foot males.”
What is unusual, according to Winn, is the distance the alligator was found from shore. It is likely this gator swam into the Altamaha after a day of sunning and was swept out to sea by unseasonably cold water after recent heavy rains.
Too chilled to fight the waters that carried it, the alligator ended up farther out at sea than what is considered normal.
Photographs of the alligator are available at www.flickr.com/wildliferesourcesdivision.