By Teresa Otto | TravelAwaits.com
On a recent road trip to Coastal Mississippi from my home near Houston, I traveled by way of St. Tammany Parish in Louisiana. It’s also called Northshore, as in the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans.
If you’re imagining live oaks dripping with Spanish moss and historic Creole homes, you’re on the right track.
I had stopped at the Blue Elbow Swamp next to the Texas Welcome Center on Interstate 10 before entering Louisiana. Signs along the marsh’s boardwalk warned of American alligator crossings and instructed me to give them 6 feet of space should I encounter any. I figured that if I saw an alligator on the walkway, I’d double that distance and get the heck out of there as fast as my feet would take me.
And I was still in Texas.
Louisiana has more alligators than all the other states combined. I decided that, given the good chance I would see an alligator on the hikes I planned to take through the state’s parks, I had better learn more about them. Knowledge is power, or so they say.
After reviewing alligator farm tours, I chose the Insta-Gator Ranch & Hatchery in Covington, Louisiana, because of its great reviews and commitment to safe social-distancing practices and smaller group sizes. I won’t keep you in suspense — it was a fantastic, fun, and educational tour. Here’s why it was an unforgettable experience.
I Got An Education
My tour began with a talk by Alex Price, who has worked at Insta-Gator for 22 years. This interactive program had everyone in the group asking questions and tossing out wild guesses. Alex did a great job keeping participants of all ages engaged — from the 5-year-old boy who seemed to be having his best day ever to the 80-something-year-old woman who was equally impressed but more subdued.
As a species, the American alligator has been around about 37 million years. Alligator hunting in Louisiana is documented as far back as the early 1800s. After the number of animals in the wild declined in the 1950s to an estimated 150,000 alligators in the wetlands, Louisiana banned hunting from 1962 until 1972. Habitat loss had added to the animals’ falling numbers.
I Learned About Conservation
Alligator ranching began in Louisiana in 1986, with the Insta-Gator Ranch & Hatchery opening in 1989. While the hunting ban increased the number of wild alligators to about 500,000, it wasn’t until ranches began harvesting, hatching, and releasing alligators that alligator numbers improved enough for the animals to be taken off the endangered species list.
Alligator ranches like Insta-Gator harvest eggs from the wild (a female alligator lays 20 to 60 eggs in her nest in June), incubate and hatch the eggs, and release about 10 percent of the animals back into the wild when they are around 4 feet long. Of the alligators that hatch in the wild, only about 6 to 8 percent survive to reach that length. The little guys have lots of predators, including bigger alligators.
Alligator farming, along with the state’s measures to preserve alligator habitat, has boosted the wild alligator population to roughly three million. Alligator hunting and farming, for meat and their hides, is a $50 million industry for Louisiana.
I Found Out That I Can Be A Hatchling’s Mom
Alex told our tour group about his experience harvesting alligator eggs. Once the eggs are back at the hatchery, they are incubated. If you visit in August or early September, you can hatch an egg.
The owner, John Price, told me that each person is given an egg to hatch, but each family has only one egg at a time so that everyone in the party can watch the birth. The alligator may hatch a second later or 20 minutes later. The hatchling may need a little encouragement, like tapping on the shell or help with opening the tough membrane. Some visitors are surprised that it’s a messy, gooey experience.
You can hold your baby alligator and take it for its first swim in the hatchery’s pool.
Pro Tip: Hatching typically begins August 8 and continues until September 6, peaking on August 22. If your trip to Northshore coincides with these dates, book a hatching experience. It’s at the top of my list for my return trip.
I Touched An Alligator
At Insta-Gator, you can have a hands-on experience at any time of the year. Alex’s talk on alligators covered Anatomy 101 — with a close look at a 4-foot-long alligator’s third eyelid, ears, and teeth. Their underbellies are surprisingly smooth, and their backs are covered with armored plates of bone under skin.
As an adult, this alligator would be over 10 feet long and weigh about 800 pounds. He could run about 12 miles per hour for a short distance and swim about 20 miles per hour. If we met on a trail, I would want my top speed to be at least 13 miles per hour!
We learned that alligators are opportunistic feeders. In the wild, they lie in wait for prey with just their nostrils and eyes above the surface of the water. They eat birds, turtles, small mammals, and fish that get close enough to their powerful jaws to be swallowed whole.
Alex said I wouldn’t be on an alligator’s menu. I was already feeling better about my chances of survival should I meet an alligator in the wild, which I did the very next day.
I Caught An Alligator
Our tour continued with a trip to the barn to feed alligators a few marshmallows. The walk through the barn started with 2-foot-long alligators and ended with ones that were five or six years old and 8 feet long.
After touring the barn, you can opt to have two more up-close alligator experiences. With “Hold A Gator,” you’re photographed with a 4-foot-long alligator in your lap.
The “Catch Alligators!” add-on allows you to catch and hold a smaller alligator (anywhere from 9 inches to 3 feet long depending on the time of year you visit) from a counter-height pool. No stooping over required. This was the highlight.
Pro Tip: These add-ons are available for a small extra fee when you book your tour.
Insta-Gator talks about alligators from “hatchling to handbag.” If you’d like more than a photo of your visit, you’re in luck. With 10 percent of the alligators being released back into the wild after hatching at the ranch and about 2,000 others remaining in the barns for visitors to see, the rest are harvested for meat and leather.
The gift shop is the place to buy quality U.S.-tanned leather goods produced from alligators farmed in the heart of Cajun Country.
The educational part of the tour is outdoors, but it’s covered, and there are benches. The barns are a short walk away. All facilities are wheelchair accessible. Allow about 1.5 hours for your visit, not including a hatching experience.