Officials work to capture a gator off the coast of Tybee Island. (Courtesy: Lorrie McClure Smith)
ATLANTA (AP) — Authorities have closed some beaches along the Georgia coast as a precaution after a large alligator was spotted in the Atlantic Ocean on the south end of Tybee Island, a popular tourist spot near Savannah.
The gator, estimated to be 8 feet to 10 feet long, was spotted in the water early Friday morning just off the beach, and a trapper on Friday was trying to capture it so it can be removed, authorities said.
"Our role now is to keep the people out of the water," Tybee Island Fire Chief Ashley Fields said by phone.
An alligator swimming in the ocean off Tybee Island "is a very rare occurrence," Fields said, adding that he's talked to people who have been around the island for 30 to 40 years who had never seen one off Tybee's beach.
"He might have come out of the Savannah River Channel is the only thing I could figure, but I wouldn't bet money on that," Fields said.
Though rare, alligator sightings in the ocean have led to beaches being closed elsewhere in the Southeast, so it's not unprecedented to find one in the Atlantic, Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman said. Gators in the South are typically found in fresh water such as ponds, rivers, streams and swamps, but they're able to swim through saltwater in the ocean to get from one place to another, the mayor said.
There are an estimated 200,000 alligators in Georgia, according to the Department of Natural Resources. They're typically found south of what's known as the "fall line" — a line that connects the cities of Columbus, Macon and Augusta.
Jack Douglas, a professional trapper known as "Trapper Jack" who frequently removes alligators when they are found in the Savannah metro area, is trying to capture the animal so that it can be removed from the area, authorities said.
In Florida, beaches at Walt Disney World resorts remained closed Friday after an alligator killed a 2-year-old Nebraska boy after dragging him from shallow water in a lake at a Disney hotel Tuesday.
"Even if Disney World wouldn't have happened, we still would have closed the beach just to be safe and take care of people," Fields said.
Tybee Island, once known as Savannah Beach, is a popular tourist destination for people from around the nation. With about 3,000 full-time residents, its population swells to several times that number during weekends in the summer season, Buelterman said.