American Alligator in Everglades National Park, Florida.
CNN  — 

Jeffrey Heim woke up on May 30, 2021, with one thing on his mind: Sharks.

Specifically, shark teeth. They’re his passion and his business. An unsuccessful attempt the day before to find any of them only fueled his obsession to find some on his next outing, he told CNN Travel recently.

So on a hot, sunny Sunday in Sarasota County, Florida, the 25-year-old Heim proceeded to the Myakka River on a spot about 45 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico.

He had been there numerous times and was comfortable with plunging into its murky waters to find the teeth of extinct megalodons in the riverbed.

He put on his wetsuit, mask, fins and snorkel and entered the water from the shore, not far from a restaurant along the riverbank.

Heim slipped beneath the surface. He was under no more than one minute when he felt something. Something bad.

“I didn’t hear anything, didn’t see anything. I just felt like a blunt force object – like someone … swinging a baseball bat and just whacking my head. But mostly what I felt was what I thought was a huge boat just slamming into me and just pulling me down.”

To his shock, it wasn’t a boat.

He was in the water, alone and face-to-face with an alligator.

Gator attacks: Rare but fascinating

Alligators sun themselves in Florida City, Miami-Dade County. Every county in Florida has gators.

Heim was in a situation many people probably fear but very few actually experience: an attack by an alligator.

An estimated 5 million wild American alligators are spread out across 10 states in Southeast and beyond, including parts of North Carolina and even the extreme southeastern tip of Oklahoma.

Louisiana has an estimated 2 million wild gators in a state of about 4.65 million people. Florida sports roughly 1.25 million alligators (and more than 1,000 American crocodiles). Georgia has about a quarter of a million.

Some of these gators inhabit places where lots of people live and many others vacation, such as lakes and rivers all across Florida and coastal South Carolina.

Yet gator attacks aren’t that frequent and deaths even more infrequent (deadly attacks from dogs and horses and other mammals are more common).

There were 442 unprovoked bite incidents in Florida from 1948 to 2021, and 26 of these bites resulted in people dying, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conversation Commission.

It turns out gators, in natural conditions, simply aren’t that interested in people, according to Kimberly Andrews, a gator and snake expert with a doctorate in ecology from University of Georgia’s Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant and who manages its Coastal Ecology Lab.

“We are not their prey. If you think about it, we’re quite dangerous to attack. We’ve got arms and legs. We can stand upright. We can walk, we can swim. … We’re not a good animal to pick a fight with.”

“Unless they’re confronted, they’re going to stay on their own turf.”

Nonetheless, people continue to be fascinated by such possible encounters.

Overblown reputation

Gators and people co-mingle, particulary around Southeastern golf courses like these little ones at the April RBC Heritage tournament on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Experts say just leave them alone, and they'll leave you alone.

Andrews wants to dispel the notion of gators as aggressive, ravenous menaces on the move. “They’re called ambush predators. We also call these ‘sit-and-wait’ predators,” she said.

They’re large, so it’s “energetically costly for them to be really active. … We would be considered an active forager. We go out and find our food.” Not so with gators.

“When you come down to it, they’re not that maneuverable. Large body. Small legs. And this also plays into why the perception of their danger is exaggerated from the actuality.”

Nonetheless, caution is advised when you’re in gator territory, be that at golf courses, swamps, lakes, rivers and hiking and bike trails and fishing spots along waterways.

Best defense: Avoid an attack

Fragrant water lilies are common in Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Georgia. Always be alert in areas where vegetation might obscure alligators.

Education is key to avoiding a bad encounter, Andrews said. Start with knowing when gators are most active.

Courtship season starts as spring warms up; mating extends in early summer; and in Okefenokee Swamp in southeastern Georgia, “we start to see eggs hatch out starting in September and October. … And that’s when the females are most protective when they feel someone is threatening their babies,” Andrews said.

Your best season is winter: If it’s cold, “they’re not doing whole lot.”

When temperatures start settling into the 80s (27 Celsius), gators become mostly nocturnal. So it’s best to avoid that refreshing night dip in unknown waters when it’s hot.

Don’t provoke, don’t feed, don’t panic

A man paddles in the Florida Everglades. If you spot a gator while on the water, respect its space.

Unprovoked attacks are rare, Andrews said. People are usually the provocateurs, not the gators. Gators can be disturbed or confused when folks have been known to try to grab them by their tails or go in for close-up photos of sunning gators

Even worse, people will feed them. Then the reptiles start to associate humans with food. That’s when gators can be most dangerous – when they’ve lost their natural fear or disinterest in people.

“They’re more likely to take the easy way out and get our food than to do the work to fight for it,” Andrews said. “In areas where we have high rates of tourism but not a lot of education and oversight of how people are interacting with alligators, we see feeding issues.”

If you do have a gator encounter, she suggests staying calm and respecting its territory

alligator close call 2
Alligator charges kayaker. See what happens next
00:58 - Source: CNN

“Say you’re kayaking, and you see an alligator, just keep going past it. Give it a wide berth, as much as the space will allow,” Andrews said.

“Don’t take the paddles and slap the water. Sometimes people do that to scare the alligator off,” but you’re actually indicating you’re a direct threat.

“If for some reason they start to swim toward you … usually try to go in the other direction and just show you’re not interested. Or paddle right on by and ignore the animal.”

Also, never mess with the reptiles’ children.

“We always tell people that those one-foot baby alligators, even though they’re so cute, they’re the most dangerous sized alligator to mess with.” That’s because there’s possibly a nearby mother ready to protect her young.

More ways to avoid an attack

An alligator crosses a road on Merritt Island at sunset near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Watch out for alligators crossing roadways, especially at dusk during mating season.

Authoritative websites have plenty of good advice to avoid a dangerous encounter. From the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at the University of Georgia:

• Don’t feed ducks, turtles or other animals that share waters with alligators.

• Stay about 60 feet (18 meters) or more away from an adult alligator. If an alligator hisses or lunges at you, you are too close.

• If you’re driving, let an alligator cross the road. They move across roadways the most often in spring and summer.

• Supervise pets and children when you’re in gator territory. “Large alligators do not recognize the difference between domestic pets and wild food sources,” the SREL says.

• Avoid heavy vegetation in and near th