OCALA – Floating on a paddleboard on the clear water of the Silver River, a Florida woman used her paddle to push away a large alligator that swam directly toward her in a frightful, up-close encounter captured in startling videos and photographs.
The alligator came within inches of Vicki Baker, 60, of Ocala. She estimated the reptile to be nearly as long as her 10-foot paddleboard. It hissed loudly at her. She said at one point it opened its mouth, revealing large teeth and its powerful jaw as it floated on the surface.
“What are you doing? Get away from me! Get away from me!” she yelled at the alligator as it swam inches from her paddleboard. “No! Oh, my God, I had to push him away with my paddle!”
Nearby, off camera in the video, an employee from Silver Springs State Park can be heard on a speaker advising her: “Ma’am, I’m going to suggest backing up considering you just made him pretty mad.”
A week later, in her first extensive interview about the incident, Baker said she remains puzzled over the encounter. She said she presumed that someone else on the water had been feeding the alligator, desensitizing it to humans and helping it associate paddlers on the river with food. More than 1 million people have seen photos and videos of the encounter, so far.
“I was afraid,” she said. “You can hear it in my voice that I was really scared. I’ve seen them my whole life and have never been afraid.”
The alligator encounter happened near Florida’s famous Silver Springs, where deep springs feed the Silver River and the water is so stunningly clear that tourists board glass-bottom boats. The park enforces a no-swimming rule but allows paddlers with canoes, kayaks and paddleboards. Alligators, large turtles, manatees and even a colony of monkeys are commonly seen in the area.
“We had just decided to eat lunch while taking pictures of the blue hole, and that gator came out of nowhere,” Baker said in an interview early Wednesday. “He came straight for my paddleboard.”
In one photograph, Baker is seen recoiling her arms and legs up onto the paddleboard and holding her long paddle to defend herself.
Baker said the entire encounter lasted fewer than five minutes, some of which she and friends recorded on video and in photographs. Her friends were nearby in kayaks, she said, and the alligator steered clear of them.
The alligator’s behavior was a mystery to experts. State wildlife officials were still deciding this week what to do with the reptile — if anything. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have launched formal investigations of the alligator.
The commission said its biologists were studying Baker’s video to understand the alligator’s behavior.
“We didn’t have an officer on scene, so right now we are going to have to conduct an investigation and interview witnesses to kind of paint the picture of what actually took place,” said Chad Weber, a spokesman for the commission.
Sidney Godfrey, a University of Florida wildlife biologist on its team of “Croc Docs,” said video from the encounter wasn’t enough to draw any conclusions.
“That animal probably had a lot of previous human interaction, people probably feeding it,” he said. “They get too close to people and you have encounters like that.”
Baker said she paddled the same river two days earlier and saw a large alligator approaching another group in the water aggressively. She believes it was the same alligator. She said after her encounter, showed her video to Keith Aliengena, a state parks services specialist, who said someone should have reported the earlier incident.
The alligator may be removed from the area the same way that nuisance alligators are commonly removed from residential areas.
Baker said she hopes the celebrity alligator survives, no matter where it ends up.
“I don’t want to see it killed,” she said.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org