The photos feature so many alligators, they seem doctored.
Dozens of 6-foot reptiles bask together in the sun. More than 25 sets of beady, reptilian eyes stick out of the same pond. It’s the Lowcountry’s own alligator alley.
And it’s all real. In the next few months as the weather warms, hundreds of gators will be on full display at Donnelley Wildlife Management Area in Green Pond, S.C., one of the best Lowcountry spots for the public to see wild alligators.
“I’ve lost track after counting to 90 gators,” said Neil Arrington of Goose Creek, a frequent visitor to the Donnelley WMA, a preserve managed by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources that is about about a half-hour drive north of Beaufort and an hour drive from Hilton Head Island.
“It freaked me out the first time I saw it to be honest, but it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in nature,” Arrington said, who has spotted at least 80 alligators in the Lodge Pond at Donnelley.
Life in gator central
The alligator congregation at Donnelley is an extremely unusual — but natural — phenomenon, according to Tom Murphy, an alligator expert and former biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
“I’ve never seen anywhere with more alligators than Donnelley on a clear sunny day during mating season,” Murphy said.
The alligators crowd at Donnelley for a few reasons, according to Murphy and wildlife biologist Dean Harrigal, who has worked at Donnelley WMA since 1992.
The alligators thrive in the managed wetland that is intensively controlled by DNR to create an ideal habitat for wildlife. DNR manages the water exchange between the area and nearby estuaries, resulting in abundant fish stocks to support the alligators, Harrigal said.
The alligators are also protected and live as they would in the wild, unlike in other areas of South Carolina.
“This isn’t the fake Gatorland,” Harrigal said. “This isn’t a golf course lagoon. This is a place to see alligators in their original habitat.”
About 200 alligators consistently live in Donnelley WMA, Harrigal said. The most visible are often the larger 6-to-9-foot gators that tend to leave the water to warm themselves in the sun. The biggest gator Harrigal has spotted in the area was 11 feet long, he said.
When to go
It is important to track the weather before deciding to go see the alligators at Donnelley, Harrigal said.
Alligators come out on warm, sunny days. When it’s overcast or cold, they’re more likely to stay submerged in the water and visitors may only see a few in the open, Harrigal said.
“Think about the days you’re most likely to want to go outside,” Harrigal said. “It’s the same for critters.”
This isn’t the fake Gatorland. This isn’t a golf course lagoon. This is a place to see alligators in their original habitat.
Dean Harrigal, Donnelley WMA wildlife biologist
For that reason, spring and summer are the best season to see the gators, especially during the prime mating season from late April to mid June, Harrigal said.
Early morning and late afternoon tend to be the time of day when visitors can see the most active gators, Harrigal said.
The best spot to watch for alligators is the wetlands near the lodge at Donnelley, though they can be seen throughout the area. Visitors can also spot wild turkeys, waterfowl, deer and snakes in the preserve.
If spectators are extremely lucky, they might even catch the mating call of the male alligators at Donnelley — a low bellow that creates vibrations in the water to attract female gators.
Last May, a video of the gators bellowing at Donnelley WMA captured by a Charleston photographer got more than 11,000 likes on social media.
“That is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in nature,” said Harrigal. “And you can only see that at a place like this.”