Florida paddleboarder dodges shoveling alligators

OCALA, Fla. (AP) — A Florida woman swimming on a paddle board in the Silver River used a paddle to propel a large alligator swimming directly towards her in a terrifying, close-up encounter captured in startling videos and photos.

The alligator came within inches of Vicki Baker, 60, of Ocala, on September 8. He estimated that the reptile was about 10 feet (3 meters) tall as a paddle board. He hissed loudly at her. He said that at one point he opened his mouth, revealing his large teeth and powerful jaw as he floated on the surface.

“What are you doing? Get away from me! Get away from me!” He shouted at the crocodiles swimming inches from the paddle board. “Number! Oh my God, I had to push him with my shovel!”

Recently, in off-camera video, a ranger from Silver Springs State Park can be heard advising a speaker: “Ma’am, I’ll suggest you back off, thinking you’ve made her pretty angry.”

A week later, in his first full-length interview about the incident, Baker said he remained stunned by the encounter. He said he guessed that someone else in the water was feeding the crocodile, desensitizing it to humans, and helping it associate the rowers in the river with food. More than 1 million people have seen photos and videos of the match so far.

“I was scared,” he said. “You can hear in my voice that I’m really scared. I’ve seen them my whole life and I’ve never been scared.”

The alligator encounter occurred near Florida’s famous Silver Springs, where deep springs feed the Silver River and the water is so clear that tourists board glass-bottomed boats. The park enforces a swimming ban but allows rowers with kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards. Crocodiles, large turtles, manatees, and even a colony of monkeys are often seen in the area.

“We had decided to have lunch while we were taking pictures of the blue hole, and that alligator popped up,” Baker said in an interview earlier Wednesday. “The right paddle came to my board.”

In one photo, Baker is seen pulling his arms and legs back onto the paddle board and holding his long racket in self-defense.

Baker said the entire encounter took less than five minutes, some of which he and his friends recorded on video and photos. “His friends were in canoes nearby,” he said, and the crocodile moved away from them.

The behavior of the crocodile was a mystery to experts. State wildlife officials were still deciding what to do with the reptile this week—if anything. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have launched a formal investigation into the alligator.

The commission said its biologists are examining Baker’s video to understand the crocodile’s behavior.

“We didn’t have an officer on the scene, so we’re going to have to conduct an investigation right now and interview witnesses to paint a picture of what really happened,” said the commission’s spokesman, Chad Weber.

Sidney Godfrey, a wildlife biologist on the “Croc Docs” team at the University of Florida, said the video of the encounter was not enough to draw any conclusions.

“This animal probably had a lot of human interaction before, probably the people who fed it,” he said. “They get very close to people and encounters like this happen.”

Baker said he had paddled in the same river two days ago and saw a large crocodile aggressively approach another group in the water. He believes it is the same crocodile. He said that after his encounter, he showed the video to state parks services expert Keith Aliengena and said that someone should have reported the incident earlier.

In the same way that offending crocodiles are usually removed from residential areas, crocodile can be removed from the area.

Baker said he hopes the famous alligator will survive wherever he is.

“I don’t want to see him killed,” he said.

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This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida School of Journalism and Communication. The reporter can be reached at eelder@freshtakeflorida.com.

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