a&c SS 2016_Gators.qxp_Layout 1 6/2/16 9:23 AM Page 52
“Treat gators with respect.” — Emily Maple, reptile keeper, Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society
© 2016 John J. Lopinot
© 2016 John J. Lopinot
Alligators have a powerful grip on our imaginations. Why do these beasts fascinate Palm Beach County residents and visitors alike? “Gators are like looking back in time. They’re prehistoric,” says Bobby Seals, a manager at Green Cay Nature Center and Wetlands in Boynton Beach. “We all have a little kid inside us and kids like dinosaurs. Now you can get up close to one.” Seals estimates that the park, which has one and a half miles of walkways, is home to eight to 12 gators – including Broken Jaw, who’s about 10 feet long. “Our boardwalk is high above the water. No way can a gator get you,” he says. “As long as you stay on the walkway.” Alligators move very quickly in water, but they are generally slowmoving on land. Generally. You don’t really want to find out how quickly they can cover short distances. They owe their speed in the water – and half their length – to their powerful tails. “Gators aren’t afraid of anything. They are the king of the Everglades,” says wildlife photographer John J. Lopinot, who shot his favorite gator photo, featuring pitiless eyes and an evil snout screened by a green veil of duckweed, at Green Cay. “The boardwalk gives you an unusual point of view. You can lean right over and photograph the creatures.” Lopinot has been capturing Florida’s wildlife on film or in pixels for almost 40 years. “We have wonderful resources here in Palm Beach County to see and photograph these amazing creatures,” he says. “Some 36 percent of our county is preserved, a real resource for photographers and artists. It’s a home for these wonderful creatures. Actually, it was their home first and we get to see them.” The American alligator is a living fossil from the Age of Reptiles. After surviving on earth for 200 million years, alligator populations reached an all-time low in the 1950s, primarily due to hunting and habitat loss. In 1987, the alligator was pronounced fully recovered, however, making it one of the first endangered species success stories.
“You can see gators pretty much anywhere in Palm Beach County,” admits Daniel Bates, deputy director of Palm Beach County Environmental Resources Management. “From the Arthur R. Marshall nature reserve in the south to the Loxahatchee Wild and Scenic River in the north.” (National Wild and Scenic River is a special protected designation.) In between, he says, there’s the Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach, the Pine Glades Natural Area in Jupiter and, to the west, Lake Okeechobee, which is rimmed by a scenic trail. “What makes Palm Beach County unique is how accessible our protected areas are,” Bates says. “We have an expansive network of hiking trails, overlooks, canoeing and kayaking opportunities. There are so many ways to see things.” The Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society offers a rare gator-viewing opportunity. It is home to Mardi, one of 11 known white gators. “Mardi looks like white chocolate,” says reptile keeper Emily Maple. The zoo’s other gators include Fred and