Local man records gator feeding ritual at Stephen C. Foster State Park
Ray Cason was expecting an ordinary day fishing when he dipped his boat into the black water at Stephen C. Foster State Park last Saturday at sunrise.
But the next few minutes proved to be anything but ordinary.
What Cason, of Homerville, witnessed, and caught on video and film, is a rare phenomenon that some call cooperative feeding, or cooperative fishing. In this case, hundreds of alligators congregated in the boat basin at Stephen C. Foster State Park, near Fargo, and the canal from the boat basin to Billy's Lake, and engaged in what Cason called "a feeding frenzy." Cason caught the rare sight early Saturday morning, and again early Sunday morning. The ritual only lasted about 30-to-40 minutes each morning, he said.
"It was unreal," said Cason, who filmed the gators with his digital camera. "There were 10-foot gators with their entire bodies three feet above the water. Gators rolling all over themselves. It was foggy that first morning (Saturday, July 10), but I bet there were 300 gators I saw in that boat basin and canal."
There were other witnesses as well, but it is believed Cason was the only one who has the scene on video. Cason sent a copy of his video to Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge officials in Folkston.
"I saw the video, but haven't been it (cooperative feeding) before myself," said Refuge Biologist Sarah Aicher. "Others who have been here longer said they saw it happen once around the (Suwannee River) sill area, where there were a large congregation of mudfish, and the alligators had a communal feeding of the mudfish. The alligators somehow get a signal and congregate and feed. It's a mystery how they do that."
Cason also posted Saturday's video on his Facebook page – not anticipating the tremendous buzz it would create.
"I had two million hits on it in one day, and had 200 people I didn't know with friend requests (so they could see the video)," said Cason. "I had a guy from AP (Associated Press) offering me money for it. It was too much. I finally decided to take it down. I had some colleges call. I'll give them (the videos and photos he took) to a college or something if they want them, but I don't want any money for it."
Cason agreed to allow The Clinch County News to post the videos on its website (www.theclinchcountynews.com) in an effort to promote interest in Fargo and Stephen C. Foster State Park.
There are stories of gators feeding communally in the swamp, but few recorded on paper or film. Noted biologist Francis Harper recounts an instance of cooperative feeding of alligators in the swamp at Buzzard Roost Lake, as witnessed by Allen Chesser in 1890. In one of Harper's publications, he quoted Chesser's description of what he witnessed (in Chesser's dialect): "These alligators, I suppose, they must a drive all the fish out er this big lake, an' down this road (the outlet). It 'us in between daylight and sunrise. I heard the racket before I got there. The alligators cared nothin' fer us. There must a been three hundred uv 'em."
Chesser also tells about witnessing large gators jumping out of the water, and biting each other.
Cason's account is very similar.
Arriving at sunrise, Cason put his boat in at the basin and heard splashing, but couldn't see far due to the fog. Once in, he said there were an estimated 150 alligators in the boat basin. He said a man from Douglas was behind him, putting his boat in at the same time.
"It looked like they (the gators) were rounding the fish up and cornering them in the boat basin, and also pushing them into the bank," Cason said. "I saw one gator with another gator in his mouth. It was a feeding frenzy. I've never seen anything like it."
Cason said he wasn't scared that the gators would flip his boat, and went on fishing once he got outside the canal, where the gator ruckus was happening.
"The water level was low, and I guess something just went off in their heads that they were going to starve," said Cason. "Male gators don't like each other, and some of those gators were 12- to 13-feet long, so they were males. It would be interesting to find out what tripped it."
Despite the image of 300 gators converging in one area for a fish feast, Aicher said visitors have little reason to fear coming to the swamp.
"This wasn't a sign that the world is exploding or anything like that," Aicher said Monday. "It's still safe to canoe through the swamp, and fish in the swamp. It's just an isolated incident, and a very interesting one."
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