The day I watched a python wrestle an alligator
I promise this blog won't be all about alligators and crocodiles. But since it's Dec. 21, it's an excuse to reflect on the incredible swamp romp I witnessed four years ago today while riding my bike in Big Cypress National Preserve.
In a swamp off Loop Road, two apex predators -- a Burmese python and an alligator -- were engaged in a heated fight just as I pedaled by. I pulled out my smartphone and started shooting video.
I wrote a story for my employer at the time, The Palm Beach Post, but their links no longer work. The only link I could find online is here.
I'll offer a new version below.
As I wrote in this space a week or so ago, Big Cypress is one of my favorite bike riding haunts. Turner River and Birdon roads -- both off the Tamiami Trail -- are great riding spots. But my favorite is Loop Road, a 26-mile stretch of scenic wilderness looping from one entrance off Tamiami to another.
This week in 2016, I stayed a couple of nights in the swamp bungalow at the Clyde Butcher photo gallery, my base as I explored Big Cypress by car and bike.
On the morning of Dec. 21, I drove west to Loop Road, turned left at Munroe Station and headed south about 2 1/2 miles. I parked at the Gator Hook Trail entrance, where I continued south on my bike.
Except for the crunching of bike tires on gravel, it's a quiet ride interrupted only by the squawks or wing action of birds -- vultures, woodstorks, herons, ibises, egrets, limpkins, ducks and the majestic anhingas, perched with their wings outstretched.
I saw plenty of alligators, sunning along the side of the road or in the swamps, which are visible on short bridges span culverts that allow water flow beneath the road.
Once in a while I heard a splash -- most likely a turtle or a gator plunging into the swamp.
But 7 miles into my ride, I heard something unusual -- a series of loud splashes, one after the other.
As my bike slowed, I'll never forget what I saw when I turned my head into the direction of the splashes -- an alligator, its mouth opening and closing, rising up out of the swamp and then back down beneath the water against its will.
Once I started shooting smartphone video, I never saw the gator's head again. But I would see the head and body of a large Burmese python as it wrestled the poor gator under the water.
They were joined as one, a twisted knot plying the water. They would sink like an anchor, wrestling in the depths and stirring the water into a dark silty soup, and then rise to the surface again, the stubborn gator refusing to give up the fight.
The alligator’s best punches were limited to futile swings of the tail that missed python’s head and struck the water.
After the first two minutes of action, I was lulled into turning off the video. There had been no movement in the water for what felt like an eternity but was more likely just 60 long seconds.
Show’s over, I assumed, and I turned toward my bike.
Splash! The water erupted again.
It went on like this for another 10 minutes or so before a long calm set over the swamp. Then, like a periscope, the python’s head silently breached the surface and surveyed its surroundings. Just below, its coiled body with distinctive giraffe spots could be seen in what I assumed was a fatal embrace with the alligator.
A couple of hours later, a tour guide at photographer Clyde Butcher’s watched my video and estimated the python might have been 15 feet long. I reported what I saw to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
While the fight between two apex predators was thrilling to watch, it was no cause for celebration.
Pythons have been destroying native animals in Florida, where they were released into the wild over the last three decades either by pet owners who can’t handle them or inadvertently when hurricanes blew through.
These “expatriate” Florida pythons are typically 6 to 10 feet and have been known to devour everything from rabbits and endangered Key Largo woodrats to alligator and small deer.
If you ever see a python in the wild, report it immediately. Here's how.