It’s a cross between a water ride at an amusement park and a zoo, with an element of suspense hanging in the air. Just what is lurking beneath the water’s surface?
The answer is alligators — lots and lots of alligators. And for the Gulf Coast Gator Ranch & Tours in Moss Point, plentiful alligators mean big business.
Although there are several gator-themed swamp tours over in Louisiana, the Gator Ranch is the only alligator tourist attraction in Mississippi.
The Gator Ranch, 150 acres of privately owned swampland in eastern Jackson County that sits snugly along the Grand Bay Estuary, is permitted and regulated through the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
“This is a unique situation,” said Ricky Flynt, the state agency’s alligator coordinator. “We are not in the business of permitting tourist attractions, but the place in Moss Point was originally permitted as an alligator farm before it was bought by the current owners, so we maintain the permits on it.”
Flynt said there are some restrictions regarding space for the gators overseen through his office. The state agency also has a hand in the breeding at the ranch.
“They have to contact us if they want to remove any eggs from the nest,” he said. “We were at the facility recently for this process.”
Back from near extinction
Flynt said alligators have made a tremendous comeback in Mississippi.
“Alligators went off the endangered species list in 1989,” he said. “Today, they are nowhere near being extinct.”
Tim Parker helps run the Gator Ranch. A former casino worker, he said he came to the ranch a few months after Hurricane Katrina.
“I was down here working in contracting after Katrina and I got offered a job at the Gator Ranch,” he said. “On my first day, I had to weed-eat the alligator pen — I was pretty nervous.”
He said there were originally about 250 gators at the ranch, but that Katrina depleted the population.
“When I started here, we had 14 gators, but now we have about 70,” he said.
Parker is quick to say the attraction is not a gator farm.
“We do not sell and harvest gators at the Gator Ranch,” he said. “It’s a sanctuary for alligators — a place for people to come and see them in their native habitat.”
Flynt said the place is a great educational tool.
“The Gator Ranch allows people who don’t have the access to see alligators in the wild the opportunity to see them in a natural condition,” Flynt said. “They treat the gators humanely and the facility is safe and we support that.”
Ecotoursim in Jackson County
Ecotourism is on the rise in Jackson County. In 2010, the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce was awarded a grant as part of BP recovery funding that was used to help promote natural tourist attractions in the county.
The funding is part of a $3 million BP grant for the Mississippi Coast. Examples of the businesses or activities it funded are Moss Point’s Pascagoula River Audubon Center, restaurants, museums, shops, bird watching, camping and nature trails.
Among the ecotourism attractions in Jackson County are the Audubon Center, the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and the Gator Ranch.
Walk, ride or both
The Gator Ranch offers a walking bridge across a couple of acres of an enclosed area that houses most of the alligators.
But the main attraction is a tour of the swamp in an airboat. Passengers on the ride can pony up an extra $5 for “alligator chow,” though it looked suspiciously like marshmallows.
“People get the food and take it on the ride and feed it to the alligators,” Parker said. “(The alligators) like the food but they don’t get aggressive over it — they get aggressive when they are fed meat, but we feed them chicken thighs every Saturday.”
The boat tour lasts about an hour. On the day the Sun Herald made the trek, about 10 or so small- to medium-sized alligators were seen.
“We’ve had people that have been so scared they turn around at the line to the boat, but when they are done, they have a new appreciation for nature and alligators.”
Parker said “thousands of people” take the boat tour annually.
Snapping the ride
Reagan Glover and Kassidy Nelson are natives of West Texas. They were on the Coast visiting their grandparents in Ocean Springs recently and decided to go to the Gator Ranch.
“I was kind of nervous about doing the tour,” Kassidy said. “I didn’t know if some of them were going to jump at me.”
Reagan and Kassidy saw several alligators on their tour and they even took time to send Snapchats of their adventure.
“It was fun,” Reagan said. “The boat ride was the best part.”