Besides heat and cocktails, Florida has a lot to offer tourists. Of course, it has hazards such as dangerous hurricanes that regularly batter the state, but the environment of Florida offers an experience very different from the one in Canada. In Florida, you will find jellyfish, scorpions and even pythons, but the state’s most iconic animals are undoubtedly its alligators and crocodiles. The three most important species of crocodilians in Florida are the American alligator, the American crocodile, and the spectacled caiman (a subspecies of alligator).
By Caroline Hogue
What are the differences between the three species?
These reptiles are found mostly in the south of Florida. Crocodiles prefer saltwater to freshwater and thus live only in this area. Alligators, on the other hand, prefer freshwater and are found in the south-east corner of the state. Caimans adapt more readily to different environments and thus are found near the sea as much as near freshwater sources.
Alligators are visually distinguishable from crocodiles by their jaws. While, alligators have snouts that are more rounded (a U‑shape), crocodiles have longer and more pointed V-shaped ones. It is also possible to identify alligators by their generally darker colours. Another way to distinguish them is by the teeth they display when their jaw is closed. When their jaw is closed, only the upper teeth of the alligator are visible. Crocodiles, on the other hand, expose both their upper and lower teeth in the same position.
One trait the three species share is that they are carnivores: they feed only on invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Despite their fierce appearance, and their evident
taste for meat, crocodilians are known to be incapable of chewing their food. They must swallow their prey whole. Even with this predicament, they are still a threat to humans. Fortunately, incidents involving alligators or crocodiles are rare, since they are timid animals. Nevertheless, the following instructions will help avoid dangerous encounters.
First, crocodiles must never be fed. Doing so encourages them to interact with humans, which removes their natural fear. Second, never swim or stay near the edges of a water source where crocodiles are known to live. Third, dogs must always be accounted for and secured. Crocodiles see them as simple mammals; thus dogs are prey. Finally, remember that crocodiles are amphibians—they are not immobile on their feet. Quick even on land, a crocodile is capable of sprinting and surprising its prey.
Are you hungry?
Crocodile hunting and farming exists in Florida, as it does in many Southern American states. These industries were born from a demand for skins since crocodile leather is a viable market alternative and crocodile meat is part of Southern cuisine and is especially popular in Cajun cooking. You will find crocodile meat in many restaurants in Florida (“Gator Grill” in Homestead, “Cajun Cafe on the Bayou”, “Linger Lodge” in St. Peterburg, or “Gator’s Dockside Bay Meadows” in Jacksonville are recommended). The meat can be prepared in endless ways, but it is often fried (blackened alligator), put in a stew (Cajun gumbo), or grilled. Often described as tasting like chewy chicken, crocodile meat is high in protein but low in fat. The tail is often regarded as the best cut of the animal.
Enjoy the show
As for crocodile tourism in Florida, two sites deserve mention: Gatorland (near Orlando) and the Everglades Alligator Farm (near Homestead). Found south of Orlando, Gatorland offers everything for those seeking a direct and intimate experience with crocodiles. The park is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm and offers many activities for crocodile enthusiasts. A day pass is $26.99 ($18.99 for children under thirteen), and visitors can watch, feed, and even wrestle adult crocodiles. The park is also known for its zip line, which overhangs the entire site, including a swamp containing more than one hundred crocodiles.
Other than the native crocodiles of Florida, you will find Nile and Cuban crocodiles, tortoises, and snakes in their daily shows. The Everglades Alligator Farm is located further in the state’s south, near Homestead, and thus east of Everglades National Park. The farm is open from 9 am to 5:30 pm daily, and the general admission fee is $15.50 ($10.50 for children aged 4 to 11). The Everglades Alligator Farm offers daily shows where audience members can watch and feed the crocodiles and snakes. Unlike Gatorland, there is no zip line attraction. However, the farm does offer airboat activities; no trip to the Everglades is complete without experiencing this iconic means of transport. This airboat trip into the Everglades is often described as the highlight of the Everglades Alligator Farm.
Despite its obviously dangerous nature, the crocodile is indeed a tamed animal in Florida. Rarely seen in town, more often than not, crocodiles are found in rivers and in more rural areas, where most human-crocodile encounters occur. For a safe experience in a controlled environment, visit Gatorland or the Everglades Alligator Farm. Otherwise, there is always the restaurant.