This young alligator appeared on the back patio at the writer’s home in Bluffton last year and had a stare-down with the residents’ cat. The gator eventually wandered away with no harm done. GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

Alligator mississippiensis.

Of all the inhabitants of the Lowcountry, the one most misunderstood might be the American alligator. The prehistoric appearance and reputation of its powerful jaw with a mouthful of 80 to 100 teeth make the reptile an intimidating neighbor.

Living among them can be both safe and exciting.

Andrew Grosse, alligator program biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, has a simple bit of advice if you see an alligator approaching: “Leave the area,” he said.

Being alert is important for a community that depends on the water for recreation, tourism and business. At any time of the year, alligators can live in any of the aquatic habitats here in the state, Grosse said.

Although Grosse said he wasn’t sure about reports of gators in the May River, he said “it’s very likely they use it at different times of the year. Alligators can live in any aquatic habitat we have in South Carolina.

“While it’s less likely to find them in full sea water environments, if there is water you should assume they are there.”

That goes for fishermen and recreational boaters as well. Movement on top of the water is an attraction and alligators can be curious. Much of their prey – ducks, geese, frogs, snakes, turtles and insects – cause a surface disturbance that they are likely to investigate.

When an alligator is nearby, “The best thing to do would be to pack up and move to another location. If an alligator is swimming toward you while you’re fishing, it could be for a variety of reasons, including fishing with smelly bait or the movement of a hooked fish,” Grosse said. “It’s also possible that they’ve been fed before and have associated boats and people with food.”

That sort of interaction creates a situation that can be bad for people and deadly for the alligators.

“A nuisance alligator is one that has lost its fear of humans and poses a direct threat to humans or pets,” said Grosse. “The mere presence of an alligator does not deem it a nuisance.”

According to DNR records, there have been 22 alligator “attacks” in the state since 1915. Eleven of those were in Beaufort County, seven on Hilton Head Island.

“Don’t feed, harass or entice the alligators in order to get them to move away or towards you. The fewer interactions you have with an alligator the less likely you are to have a negative one,” said Grosse.

John Handfield, staff officer for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 10-11, said the unit’s members on patrol have not had any interaction or sightings of alligators. “However, we have seen a fairly large one in the waters of Skull Creek around the Boat House docks,” Handfield said. “This is where we keep three of our facilities [boats], so we are at the docks quite a bit.”

Gators are unlikely to be swimming around the marinas on a regular basis. They are dependent upon fresh water and will travel miles to visit ponds or lakes, according to Grosse, but might be found in brackish water or rivers.

Once spring arrives, alligators are everywhere basking in the sunlight, absorbing the heat to warm up their bodies.

“They want to increase their body temperature as much as possible during the day to be able to feed, travel and mate,” Grosse said. “At the same time, the breeding season occurs in the spring so alligators are moving a lot to find mates.”

Feeding or harassing alligators can result in legal issues. Molesting, injuring or killing alligators is punishable by law with fines up to $2,500 and 30 days in jail. Feeding alligators is punishable by law with fines up to $150 and up to 30 days in jail.

“We as humans have a tendency to anthropomorphize wildlife, when in reality their actions are a direct result of their necessity to fulfill their basic needs. Things like food, water and shelter that we take for granted, are the driving force behind why wildlife behaves the way it does,” said Grosse. “Thinking about it from this perspective can help us better understand and co-exist with the wildlife around us.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.