Tracking'Alligatorzilla' : Gator is huge — and possibly bashful

ByChris Dixon

Monday, January16, 2006

Edition:FINAL, Section: NATION, Page A1


Whycan't you find Alligatorzilla when you need him?

That was thequestion on Chris Crolley's mind as he tramped through analligator-infested pond on Bull's Island, armed with a tape measure,a pair of waders and a heaping helping of courage.

A few weeks back,while leading a birdwatching expedition on this very pond at theisland's north end, the captain of the Bull Island Ferry pointed outa truly enormous alligator on a far bank. When asked the creature'ssize, Crolley responded that "Alligators aren't supposed to get thatbig," and estimated that it might be longer than 20 feet.

When his commentappeared in a Jan. 2 Post and Courier article about the migratorywaterfowl wintering at Bull's Island, several vigilant readers notedthat this would make the gator not only a state record, but anational one. Such a possibility prompted another trip with Crolley.

"In the last 13or 14 years I've been paddling kayaks into places other people can'tget in, and going places that maybe people shouldn't go," Crolleydrawled while driving to the huge freshwater impoundment dubbed"Alligator Alley."

"As far as thebiggest gators I've seen — there was one in the upper reachesof Sparkleberry Swamp. I swore he was a tree until he moved. But thelargest one I've ever seen — it's the one out here."

On his trips intothe southern boundaries of the Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge, Crolleytypically points out that Bull's Island's 5,000 acres are among themost pristine places in America. This makes for an excellent placefor a gator to grow undisturbed and unnoticed. He says that analligator count he attended a few years back with the stateDepartment of Natural Resources Alligator Project Supervisor WaltRhodes found a likely population of 800 to 1,000 alligatorsinhabiting the forests, marshes and swamps. This would give Bull'sIsland one of the highest such population densities of any placenorth of Florida.

"These estuarieshave been untouched from prehistoric times," he said. "You leave analligator to grow in its thriving natural habitat, they will get aslarge as they can get."

The largestalligators Rhodes said he has seen in state waters were 12- to13-footers in the waters around Sparkleberry Swamp near Lake Marion,the inland freshwater impoundments of the Santee River Delta and theDonnelly Wildlife Management Area of the ACE Basin. The largest gatorever recorded in the state was a 13-foot, 1-inch monster that apoacher shot in Sparkleberry Swamp. His stuffed remains are theproperty of the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia.

Yet even thisgator is dwarfed by the American record, a 19-foot, 2-inch beast shotin Louisiana. Alligators can live more than 50 years.

Rhodes was sent aphotograph and a grainy video of Alligatorzilla. While the reptilewas surely not 20 feet long, Rhodes agreed it was a huge bull gatorthat could be a state record. When an alligator gets longer than 10feet, its body gains girth dramatically. This could be part of thereason for the overestimation of its size. "A 10-footer," he said,"will weigh 350 to 400 pounds. But 12-footers can weigh close to800."

Crolley had beenhopeful that this January day might be excellent for a sighting, butthe day was so warm that far fewer reptiles sunned themselves alongAlligator Alley than they had a few weeks back.

When Crolleyreached the freshwater pond where his quarry was last sighted,Alligatorzilla was nowhere to be seen. So the brave naturalist wadedto the exact spot where the big guy had been filmed a few weeksearlier.

Running his tapemeasure from the edge of the water, where about a third of thegator's tail had appeared to still be submerged in the water, towhere video appeared to show the gator's head, Crolley measuredbetween 11 and 12 feet. He then planted a four-foot-long stick forfuture measurements and high-tailed it out of there.

"One thing Irealize," he said back on high ground, "is that the four-foot sticklooks longer than four feet from here."

"But," hecontinued, "I've always felt really valid and confident saying that,if that's not the biggest gator on Bull Island, it's certainly thebiggest one I've ever seen on Bull Island."

Contact ChrisDixon at

cdixon@postandcourier.comor (843) 745-5855.


Walt Rhodes,supervisor of the Alligator Project for the state Department ofNatural Resources, says the best time to visit Bull's Island to tryto spot Alligatorzilla would be a day when the air is chilly and thesun bright.

To line up a trip,call 884-7684 or visit