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There are at least 10,000 alligators lurking in Lake Jesup, which makes it one of the most crowded spots for the reptiles in Florida.
There are at least 10,000 alligators lurking in Lake Jesup, which makes it one of the most crowded spots for the reptiles in Florida. (Orlando Sentinel)

Places like to claim they are the favorite spot for certain activities. If you like to gamble, it’s Las Vegas. If you like Dolly Parton, it’s Branson, Missouri.

But what if you like to eat mudfish, sleep a lot and have people gawk at you?

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Well, you are probably an alligator with a Central Florida address. Which brings us to this week's Ask Orlando question.

"Does Lake Jesup really have 15,000 gators in it? It’s been said to have this tremendous number of gators. I’d hate to go swimming in there."

The questioner obviously isn't an alligator, because they love to go swimming there. As to the precise number, it's an educated guessing game.

"I've never heard there are 15,000 gators," Joel Martin said. "I've heard 10,000."

He owns Black Hammock Adventures, the multi-purpose alligator emporium on the shores of Lake Jesup. It offers airboat rides, vacation rentals, a marina, a bar and a restaurant where you can get a quarter-pound of gator bites for $8.95.

Since "Alligator Attack!" stories always get people's attention, I wish I could say there are 150,000 of them in Lake Jesup and they're scheming to march down Interstate 4 and terrorize Orlando.

That would only perpetuate the Bad Guy image that's been unfairly foisted on Florida's official state reptile. As it is, Black Hammock's website says Lake Jesup has "the largest concentration of the magnificent beasts of any lake in the U.S."

It means alligators, though the claim is suspect. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates there are 1.3 million gators statewide and about 13,000 in Lake Jesup.

"Lake Okeechobee has the most alligators, due to its size and availability of suitable habitat," an FWC spokesperson said.

On the last Saturday of Florida’s alligator hunting season, Richie Smith and Alex Horton get ready for the water. They have been hunting monster alligators on Crescent Lake for six or seven years, maybe more like eight –– they can’t keep track anymore. What they do keep track of is the size of the gators. Nothing under 10 feet; 12 feet or more would be better.

That lake has about 30,000 alligators, but it’s almost 30 times larger than Lake Jesup. So when it comes to population density, Lake Jesup might be No. 1.

That would make it the state's favorite spot for alligators, according to a survey of alligators. Take that, Okeechobee.

Why do gators love Lake Jesup?

The answer begins 100,000 years ago, when Seminole County was beachfront property. The Atlantic slowly receded east, leaving a marshy paradise for all sorts of creatures.

Lake Jesup barely 6 feet deep in most places, though that fluctuates depending on rainfall. Much of its shoreline is too remote and swampy for even the most zealous developer to build condos on.

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Except for boaters, the habitat hasn’t changed much since Buddy Dyer was first elected Orlando mayor in 4,000 B.C. Gators are free to do what gators do, which isn’t much.

But leave it to man to mess up their home.

The St. John’s River flowed into the lake, but the state and Army Corps of Engineers built berms and roads that cut off all that cleansing water. Wastewater from inefficient sewage plants and farms drained into the lake.

The same thing happened in Lake Apopka, and its gator population suffered. Studies showed the reptiles fared better in Lake Jesup despite it turning into a gooey, smelly lagoon by the early 1990s.

Environmental groups persuaded the state to undertake revitalization projects, like replacing the earthen causeway under State Road 46 with a bridge.

It’s a never-ending battle, but Lake Jesup is a lot closer to its original state than it was 30 years ago.

"The lake is much cleaner now," Martin said. "Before, it was kind of a mess."

He not only sells gator tacos, he dispenses gator knowledge to visitors.

"Tourists get scared," Martin said. "They believe gators attack people."

They do, but not very often.

Only 25 people have died from unprovoked alligator attacks in Florida since 1948. About 1,100 people died in the U.S. from attacks by wasps, bees or hornets between just 1999 and 2017.

The odds of getting attacked by a gator are one in 3.1 million. They really have nothing against the 21 million humans who've moved into their Florida neighborhood.

Most attacks are a case of mistaken identity (they think you're a fish) or when alligator mothers feel their offspring are threatened. So be careful during mating season in the late spring, especially around dawn and dusk.

"It's like a zoo," Martin said.

Alligators are easier to find than slot machines at Caesars Palace. The best way to do it is on an airboat, though you can also get an eyeful if you drive over the State Road 417 Causeway.

So back to this week's question. Nobody's sure exactly how many alligators lurk in Lake Jesup.

But if one of them wanted to hold up a foam finger proclaiming Jesup is No. 1 in gator popularity, there’s no reason to argue with it.

“Ask Orlando” is a weekly feature intended to solve local mysteries and enlighten readers. If you have a question about anything Orlando, send an email to [email protected]

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