Could Hurricane Ian increase the chances of alligator attacks in SC? What to know

Drew Martin/dmartin@islandpacket.com

Hurricane Ian is strengthening as it heads toward Florida and then South Carolina, bringing with it heavy rains, potential flooding — and possibly alligators.

The scaly critters have been known to show up in spots they wouldn’t otherwise visit because of hurricane flooding. Thanks to smartphones, alligator sightings have been plentiful after hurricanes in recent years. In 2018 for instance, a gator was spotted swimming in a flooded dog park in Myrtle Beach after Hurricane Florence.

And with sightings of alligators where they’re not supposed to be comes the fear of an attack.

So since there’s another hurricane barreling toward South Carolina, what are the chances of an alligator attacking someone during or after a big storm? For that matter, what about under normal circumstances?

According to a report by University of Florida researchers — not likely in both cases.

Composed by a team of biologists, the report states that unprovoked alligator attacks on humans are rare.

“An unprovoked attack happens when an alligator makes first contact with a human, whereas a provoked attack happens when the human voluntarily makes contact with or disturbs an alligator in some way,” the report states. “There is no evidence to suggest that unprovoked alligator attacks will increase during a hurricane.”

What do alligators do during a hurricane?

The report states that researchers in Florida who have observed alligator behavior during storms have not found any evidence of them actively hunting or seeking out prey during hurricanes.

“While alligators are heavily armored, they are equipped with highly sensitive receptors that can detect changes in pressure. If a hurricane is moving in, they are likely preparing to hunker down,” the report states.

Still, it is more likely that alligators will move around after a hurricane and with widespread flooding, might show up in unexpected places, the report adds.

Alligator attack risk comparison

Unprovoked alligator attacks do happen sometimes and should not be downplayed. However most are preventable and the fatality rate is low. “Roughly 4% of alligator attacks on humans in the United States have resulted in death, a majority of which occurred in Florida,” the report states.

According to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, there have been 23 non-fatal encounters between people and alligators, as well as three alligator-related fatalities, between 1976 and 2020.

“Most alligator attacks are characterized by a single bite and immediate release,” the report states. “Few attacks can be attributed to territorial alligators or nest defense. For this reason, pet attacks are more common since they are often perceived as potential prey by alligators.”

Animal fatality comparison

A comparison of animal-related fatalities from the CDC WONDER database shows that venomous injuries, largely from contact with hornets, wasps and bees, account for an average of more than 56 fatalities per year, compared to an average of about one fatality per year from alligator attacks in the United States. Of nonvenomous animal fatalities, a majority — about 72 per year — have resulted from interactions with mammals or dogs.

Alligator safety tips

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources has a host of tips to reduce the chances of alligator attacks even further.

  • Never feed alligators. Not only is it illegal in South Carolina to feed alligators, it also teaches them to associate people with food. This can cause alligators to lose their natural fear of humans. Also, don’t dispose of fish scraps or crab bait in the water at boat ramps, docks, swimming, or camping areas. You can inadvertently be feeding alligators.

  • Avoid swimming in areas known to harbor large alligators. As the size of an alligator increases, so does the size of prey that it can consume. Don’t swim or play in the water between dusk and dawn in areas with alligators. Alligators normally are more active during the night and can mistake splashing noises for prey.

  • Keep pets out of the water, even in designated swimming areas, if alligators are present. Pets are more susceptible to being attacked as they resemble normal prey items for alligators.

  • Don’t approach an alligator. Keep your distance and leave them alone. Alligators can move in quick bursts over short distances but normally do not try to run after people. If an alligator hisses, it’s a warning that you are too close.

  • If an alligator is in a place where it cannot reasonably be expected to get back to the water without posing a risk to itself or to others, or is in a location that presents an immediate hazard, such as a road, school, pool, parking lot, etc., contact the DNR at 1-800-922-5431. Never attempt to capture or move an alligator by yourself.