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Boca Grande beaches: Who knows what you might find?

October 19, 2023
By Marcy Shortuse

You don’t expect to see an alligator on the beach, but sometimes it happens. It has happened here, in fact, many times. There’s lot of swamp and water in the undeveloped areas of the island where an alligator can live and an occasional trip to the beach is always in order. We’re also close enough to Cayo Costa – where alligators are frequently found – for one to swim across the Pass and enjoy our island’s hospitality.

We have had recent beach sightings from the middle of town up to 19th Street and before that, several down by Sea Grape and South Beach on the south end of the island.

This particular alligator in question, though, is no longer in Boca Grande. On Thursday, Oct. 12 his luck ran out and he was picked up by a trapper named Kevin Estrada who subcontracts for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. There were several witnesses who saw the alligator, including one couple who saw him in the water, stopped dead in their tracks, then jumped on the seawall.

The incident took place between Banyan Street and 3rd Street on the beach. Once the majestic beast was subdued, the Boca Grande Fire Department took him on their ATV to 9th Street, where he was loaded up for transport.

The alligator measured 10’1”. Tracy Hansen, Estrada’s boss, said he was very tired when they picked him, as he had been swimming against a strong current in the Gulf for some time. However, when they got him to his destination – a breeding farm around Alva and LaBelle, in the Babcock area – he appeared to be refreshed and ready to rumble.

At the farm, which is really just a very large swamp, they raise gators for breeding and collect the eggs. They sell them to other farms and also sell the meat and hide. Guided hunts are done there as well.

“Almost all of the gator is used,” Hansen said. “Everything except the guts.”

Hansen has worked alligators in this area for 30 years. His father-in-law did it before him and he started assisting in 1991, but when his father-in-law died in 2006 he took over for him.

He can’t recall exactly how many he’s taken off the island, but it’s somewhere around 20. He’s had calls from individuals, as well as places like The Gasparilla Inn Golf Course and Boca Bay. They call the FWC, who then call Hansen.

It hasn’t always been this way, though, as far as taking the gators to a farm. Hansen said they used to euthanize every one they caught. It’s only been in the last three years that they take them to the swamp.
Looking back through history, this apparently isn’t as rare as all that. In 1954 Constable Johns Knight said in a newspaper article that an 11-foot gator was pulled out of the Gulf. His thought was that it had come out of the Peace River in search of food, had been hunting in the Pine Island area and got caught in a fast outgoing tide.

Knight called a man named Les Piper from Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs and Piper took him back there. Piper told the newspaper reporter that the gator appeared to be exhausted and had possibly been in the saltwater for a good long time.

Piper also stated in the 1954 article that three years prior to that, in 1951, a saltwater crocodile was found on a beach in Venice.

In 1987 Smiley, the mascot alligator of The Gasparilla Inn & Club, narrowly escaped becoming a main entree when an Englewood wildlife sanctuary received a call that he was “dying.” Volunteers found the gator with a cord wrapped around its legs, which was attached to a survey stake. It appeared that someone had captured him and tied him up to come back for him. While Smiley was released at that time, apparently the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (predecessor of the FWC) caught wind of the fact that he was there and had a trapper come to bait a hook for him. Smiley took the bait, our alligator was taken out of local waters and the trapper made $140, $30 of which went to the State.

More recently, in the summer of 2018, a five-footer was sporadically spotted sunning himself on the beaches between 1st Street and the south end. In 2015, iguana trapper George Cera had to remove a baby gator from the Boca Grande Community Center after it wandered away from its home in the ditch at 1st Street.

While the trapper named Piper had said that alligators usually only take about 12 hours in saltwater before they get sick, Hansen said he caught one off the beach in Boca Grande 10 to 12 years ago that had been in saltwater so long it had barnacles.

“Saltwater isn’t their favorite thing,” Hansen said, “but they go there.”