EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, Fla., May 16, 2006 — -- Back in the 1950s when Gator Park opened, it sat deep in the Florida Everglades, a long way from Miami. But today it is only a few minutes from the city's edge to the airboat docks where tourists assemble for a firsthand look at alligators in their native habitat.
Heading west from the city to the Everglades on Tamiami Trail, you can see where wetlands have been bulldozed to make way for yet another sprawling housing development. But the moment you cross Krome Avenue the houses stop and wilderness begins. A giant drainage canal parallels the two-lane highway.
Glance over at the canal as you drive past, and you can see the telltale outline of alligators as they cruise about, oblivious to the uneasy coexistence that has made them feared by their human neighbors just down the road.
Gator Park itself is one of those appealing relics of another era. The shop is loaded with tourist paraphernalia. There are picnic tables out front. But the real appeal here are the nine airboats that take the adventurous into this land of the exotic.
Dan Coltrane has been an Everglades guide for 15 years. He said he also wrestles gators. "Only got bit once," he said. With his ponytail and earring and his deep raspy voice, he could double for a pirate. But his passion is here.
We clamber into his boat as he climbs onto his elevated perch. He puts his hand on the joystick, starts the giant propeller and we head for a grassy canal.
"Jumperrrr! Hey Cleooooo! Lillly," he yells. Those are his gators. He insists they know his voice.
Coltrane said it is tough to navigate the Everglades these days. A long winter drought has left water here in this giant swamp down about 10 inches. That means huge areas are inaccessible. That also explains why there were so many alligators soaking in that drainage canal beside the road.
"There's more in the canals right now because it is so dry out in the open," he said. "They're gonna move into the water, it's a lot safer in the deeper water, but even our deep water is shallow right now."
Even though he has spent most of his life in the Everglades and likes to believe he knows how alligators think, Coltrane is completely baffled by what happened over the last week. Three different women killed by alligators in three different parts of the state. Records show there have been only 17 alligator-related deaths in Florida since 1948.
Three in one week? Unheard of.
"We've been trying to figure that out ourselves," said Coltrane as he furrowed his brow. "Alligators don't attack people that are on land like that."
Coltrane said he can understand why an alligator went after one of the victims: She was snorkeling in a lake in central Florida. When her friends found her, her head was inside the alligator. By the time they wrestled her free she was dead.
"With the one snorkeler I can see the misunderstanding," Coltrane said. "Alligators' eyes are above the surface of the water, so when you're swimming all they're seeing is what's above, which is your head and arms. That doesn't look too big. Once they grab and start to shake they realize how big you are, they'll normally let you go, but the damage has already been done."
Coltrane has a harder time understanding how a woman in Sunrise was apparently attacked by an alligator while on a path beside a canal. It is believed she had been jogging.
"I've been around alligators all my life, and I've never heard of something like this last attack," he said. "It doesn't make sense. Alligators are not that way."
Coltrane is convinced that investigators will find that there is more to this story.
As he navigates the airboat westward, Coltrane stops by a dry patch of grass where a 6-foot alligator rests next to the water. It is Jumper. He seems utterly uninterested in our arrival.
Coltrane said there is no mystery to coexisting with alligators.
"You should just respect them. Anytime you're around water -- anywhere there's water in south Florida -- sooner or later there's a good chance there will be an alligator," he said. "Even swimming pools that are fenced in … tend to get alligators during the mating season when they're traveling. Just respect them and be aware when you're around water."
And spring is mating season, Coltrane noted. During mating season, males have been known to travel up to 50 miles to mate.
"Why are there so many alligators invading human habitat?" I asked him.
He rejects the premise of the question.
"Alligators moving into human habitat?" he shoots back. "It's more like humans into the alligators' habitat. All of south Florida is actually built on everglades. We have over a thousand people move here each week. The building is coming out further, which is shrinking the alligators' habitat and our alligator population is growing very rapidly and doing very well. So it's not the alligators coming into our area, it's us moving into their area."
As Florida's population grows, alligators have rapidly become visitors in their own home.