PART ONE: In the Waters of Florida

With so many people moving into Florida from large Northern cities, I am often asked questions about the wildlife of Florida and whether they will encounter dangerous situations in their new surroundings.  I must admit that growing up in suburban Massachusetts meant I never saw sharks, alligators, rattlesnakes, and bears.

PART ONE will comment on dangers found in Florida’s 1,350 miles of saltwater coastline and 30,000 lakes ( over three million acres). While most Florida residents and visitors are concerned with going into the subtropical waters of Florida beaches, it should be noted that Florida’s lakes house 1.5 million alligators.


JELLYFISH  are common in Florida, even some large Portuguese man-o-war.  The basic rule: the longer the tentacle, the more painful a sting can be. Move away from any jellyfish because they have less control of their movement in waves and moving water.

If stung, do not rinse with fresh water nor rub the area. Isopropyl alcohol or vinegar should be poured onto the stinging cells and gloves should be used to remove tentacles with their stinging nematocysts.

FIRE CORAL is a good reason to snorkel or swim three feet from coral formations. There are too many types of fire coral to list: different colors, both sponge-like and hard like.  Most fire coral have whitish tips with the same stinging tentacles as jellyfish. 

Another undesirable of coral reefs, but also seagrass shallows, are SEA URCHINS, the porcupines of the sea.  They are actually cleaning off the algae from coral.  Their needle-like quills require a good dose of hot water and cortisone cream.

BARRACUDA look like a pack of silver, black-eyed torpedoes with scary pointed teeth.  They want to avoid divers and swimmers, but have a bad habit of hanging out in the shady water of a dock.  Do NOT jump off a Florida dock without looking and do NOT swim with flashy jewelry which looks like a barracuda’s favorite snack.  

Clearly SHARKS are the greatest fear of Florida swimmers.  Much of the impact comes from the fact that the media notes Florida having the most shark attacks in the world, with New Smyrna Beach labeled ‘the Shark Bite Capital.”  

Let’s get past the sensationalism. In 2022 Florida had 16 attacks of the worldwide 57 recorded shark attacks.  No one died although two bull shark attacks in Florida resulted in serious surgery. A key point is the majority of attacks were by nurse sharks, who avoid people.

So what gives? A study of Florida shark attacks since 1882 reveal a huge percentage of attacks occur when surfers cross into feeding sharks. The Atlantic Ocean north of Cape Kennedy has four of the top five counties for shark attacks and the ten counties with the most shark attacks are ALL on the Atlantic Ocean.

There is good reason that New Smyrna Beach (Volusia County) gets soi many attacks: surfing, coastal fishing, murky water along Ponce de Leon Inlet caused by boating and moving water which produce lots of baitfish that attacks sharks, and colder water.   Despite its huge scuba and snorkel population, the Florida Keys (Monroe County) have had just 21 known shark attacks since 1882.

THE ADVICE: Do not swim or snorkel at night.  Never go into the ocean with a bloody cut.  Avoid swimming in murky water near inlets or rivers or heavy fishing activity. Stop surfing and wakeboarding if people see groups of sharks.


ALLIGATORS cause the most fear to Florida newcomers, but alligators are leery of humans and sense danger from us. Established urban areas have rooted out most gator habitats, but new subdivisions built into former marshy rural areas are intruding into the reptiles’ habitat. 

Despite dozens of Florida parks located with lakes and along rivers only 17 people have been killed by alligators since 1948 when Florida kept detailed records.  Moreover, these cases reflect the key truths about gators and humans. Almost one-half of all gator attacks in the USA take place from late April to early July, the mating season when male gators wander around looking for a mate and are more territorial than usual.  Most photographs of big gators crossing golf courses or major highways involved romantically inclined gators.

The infamous death of a small child wading into the lake at Walt Disney World’s Grand Floridian Resort took place at 9 pm on June 14, 2016.  Close to twenty percent of deaths occur when people walk small dogs around a pond at night or early morning. Gators are attracted to small pets. Likewise, swimming or searching for golf balls in a pond in the evening when alligators do most of their bunting is another common situation in gator attacks.

This may not relieve your of fears for the Florida outdoors, but it should give you the proper warnings in the right perspectives.

About floridatraveler

Historian and travel writer M. C. Bob Leonard makes the Sunshine State his home base. Besides serving as content editor for several textbook publishers and as an Emeritus college professor, he moderates the FHIC at www.floridahistory.org
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