“Can you swim in Lake Okeechobee?” An article with that headline from an blog written by RVers called “Mortonsonthemove.com,” that was shared on a public social media page in Okeechobee attracted a lot of attention from community members last week.
The article states: “Lake Okeechobee and many other Florida water sources often experience high levels of blue-green algae. While the state has been battling these algae growths across the state for years, 2021 and 2022 have seen extreme cases.”
The writer fails to mention that not all blue-green algae are capable of producing toxins, and even the 25% of species of blue-green algae that are capable of producing toxins do not always do so. While blue-green algae is a problem statewide, 2022 has not been a bad year for algae in Lake Okeechobee, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection data. The vast majority of regular water tests have found no toxins or very low levels with most below the level deemed safe for drinking water by the EPA. In addition, in 2021 while Lake O experienced a large algal bloom early in the wet season, there was relatively little algae the rest of the year. The theory was the initial bloom had consumed the available nitrogen in the water, limiting the available food supply.
Okeechobee area residents who commented on the article pointed out the writer missed the reason most natives don’t swim in the lake – the alligators! The gators, combined with the low visibility in the dark water, means few locals are willing to dive in.
“I wouldn’t swim because of gators, but the lake is not polluted. I get so sick and tired of hearing this. It’s a beautiful lake. If people would stop spraying and killing all the vegetation, which actually helps keep the water clean, it would certainly help,” posted Debbie Nettles Storey.
“My old neighbor swam from J&S Fish camp to Moore Haven so fast he got sponsored by Mercury,” joked Harrison Willis O’Connor.
“When I was a kid we did all the time, but it was clear and yes there’s gators but generally don’t bother you unless it’s breeding time,” offered Kristi Kinnibrugh.
“Jumping off of the bridge out at Okee-Tantie was a right of passage when we were in high school in the 70’s!” added Karen Williamson Cook.
“We actually tried lifeguarding at the lake back in the early 70’s, but the visibility had already begun to deteriorate and there was a huge drop-off near the end of the pier that was really dangerous. Only lasted a couple of weeks or so before it was shut down,” added Karyne Brass.
“Many drowned in it. I will never forget. Twin sisters and their father. One sister tried to save the other and the father tried to save them, and they all drowned. Collins family. Yes, there used to be a beach and people swam and played there,” wrote Claudia Johnson.
“I grew up swimming and skiing in it. But that was in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s but I wouldn’t now. Way too much crap coming in from the river from Orlando,” stated Brian Feltner.
Linda Harper posted swimming in Lake O is not advised “if you want to keep your arms and legs.”
“Just don’t do it at night,” advised Jack Fulce.
“There are way more gators in the lake today than there was back in the day that is for sure,” added Billy Johnson.
“If they would give a few more gator tags out a year we wouldn’t have as much of a problem. The gators don’t fear people anymore because they’re not getting culled. I’ve seen gators in the lake that easily top the record for biggest gator in Florida. There’s too many,” opined Sierra Story.
“I grew up in the 2000s, so it was always interesting for me to listen to my Dad and Grandpa talk about how they used to swim in it years ago! I could never, not with them gators!” posted Marissa Kerce Walker.
According to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the posters are correct. There are a lot more alligators in the lake than there were in the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1960s, alligators were scarce in Florida. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 prohibited alligator hunting, allowing the species to rebound. FWC estimates there are now about 1.3 million alligators in Florida. The state’s alligator hunting program, which resumed in 1988, sets quotas each year in attempt to keep the alligator population at a manageable level. In addition, the state’s Nuisance Alligator Program allows licensed trappers to remove alligators if a complaint meets the qualifying criteria.
In 2021, FWC issued 15,080 tags to hunt alligators but only 52.8% of hunters were successful for a total harvest of 7,955 alligators. Of those harvested, 80% were male gators.
That same year, 9,442 nuisance alligators were harvested. Of those nuisance alligators harvested, 66.7% were males. According to FWC, nuisance alligators are killed because relocation of alligators is not feasible. “Relocated alligators often try to return to their capture site. They can create problems for people or other alligators along the way. If an alligator successfully returns, capturing it again would be necessary and likely more difficult the second time,” the FWC website states.
People concerned about an alligator should call the FWC toll-free Nuisance Alligator Hotline at 866-FWC-GATOR (866-392-4286).