In New Orleans, it only takes about 30 minutes to get into a swamp. I went to Jean Lafitte National Park and reserve because it is the biggest. They do great work to preserve the various sections from environmental and human deterioration.
There were about 10 of us on the boat as we crept our way slowly into the bayou. The boat guide, Captain Julien, was Cajun and spoke in a cross between French and English with a southern dialect that sounded like he had a bunch of marbles in his mouth. Luckily for me, he had a habit of saying everything twice, which meant I was able to understand almost half of what he said.
INTO THE BAYOU
As we boarded the boat and Captain Julien used a long stick to push us out into the water, he explained that we only might see alligators.
In Jean Lafitte National Park, the Barataria Preserve has 26,000 acres of wild Louisiana wetlands including swamp, bayous, and marsh. Because of this, there are many dozens of species thriving in the area and hunting is regulated.
We slowly glided through the bayou, tall brown reed grass on either side of us. We flowed with the water. A bayou, while appearing swamp-like, is a slow-moving river. A swamp is just a piece of spongy land saturated with stagnant water. If you’re now wondering, a marsh is an area of wetlands near fresh water that’s often flooded. They’re all wetlands. All three blend together in Jean Lafitte National Park.
GATOR HUNTING IN THE BAYOU
Julien said (I think) that gators are avid breeders. They’re hunted to keep the population low and provide those fried gator bites people in the city seem to be so fond.
He told us they catch alligators by dangling raw chickens with a big hook from a fishing line a foot above the water. The gators smell the chicken and jumps out of the water to grab it. A gator can jump pretty high; big ones can reach up to six feet. Think about that next time you’re dangling your arm over the side of the boat.
We saw a six-point deer ambling near the water’s edge right after that. Captain Julian said it was big enough that it didn’t have too much to fear. Smaller gators wouldn’t bother trying, but if it got near the edge when a 10-footer was close, that deer would be a goner too.
“Are there a lot of 10-footers here?” I asked.
“Sho is, cher, sho is.” But they sleep now, don ya’ll worry. They sleep.”
He explained that, with a big prey likely to fight, the alligators snap their powerful jaws on them and pull their catch underwater. An alligator’s jaws don’t open and close quickly enough to eat a live victim without it getting away, so drowning it makes the job easier. Once their jaws catch hold, almost nothing will pry them open again.
He said he’d run thousands of boats through this bayou over the years, but times are changing.
Before it was Jean Lafitte National Park, it used to just be the bayou and the boat captains used to be a lot freer with what they did out here. But, to protect the habitat and the people, the federal government has regulated things as they tend to do.
Julian said they used to hunt the gators whenever they wanted, and now it’s only during specific periods. Also, they used to feed the gators to get them to approach the boats, but that was considered dangerous, so they had to stop. I, for one, was grateful for that.
MAMA GATOR AND HER BABIES
Someone had asked about the danger (Ok, it was me), and Julian said alligators are docile animals. The only time an alligator is likely to be aggressive is when they’re protecting their offspring; he said as we rolled up on a nest of baby alligators. Off to the left, momma gator raised her head slowly from the depths she’d been hiding in, glaring at us.
After a minute, not sensing any danger, she sunk back under the water to the sleep she’d been enjoying. However, had she felt the need to protect her offspring, Julien said, that mama could have lunged at us going 20 – 35 miles per hour, which is pretty quick when you’re in a bayou.
ALLIGATOR LIFE IN THE WINTER
Julien said there were likely several alligators hidden in the mud at the bottom of the bayou. Alligators rest in the winter, becoming nearly paralyzed with cold. Being cold-blooded, they’re heated by external elements. Since it was only about 60 degrees, they were still and hidden in the mud below.
The water was shallow, low enough to stand up in some parts. I imagined swimming in there and stepping on an alligator. I stopped the fantasy before it could go further.
Most of the gators in this Jean Lafitte National Park area are between six and eight feet long. The bigger ones have long been hunted off, but a few remain. Soon, we spotted a 10-foot gator swimming with agility away from our boat. Its body was as wide as mine, and in my current winter state, that’s saying something.
Then we saw a huge 12-foot gator surface, covered in mud. He looked like one of those big alligator inflatable rafts my mom used to buy us kids to use in the pool during the summer. Two of us kids could fit on it at the same time. I’d always thought it was exaggerated in size, but I was young and stupid. He watched our boat cautiously but didn’t seem bothered by our presence. Soon, he sunk back down below, lurking and I left the bayou with a renewed respect.