Florida resident Jeffrey Heim was searching for shark teeth in the Myakka River when his life changed forever. Now he hopes that sharing his near-death encounter with an alligator will help save others from the same fate.
On that day – May 30, 2021 – Heim made two big mistakes. He dived alone – I felt invincible – and during mating season
“I’ve dived in this river many times – I would say three or four times,” said Heim news week. “I spent hours there on every trip. But I was with my mentor and very experienced extreme cinematographer, Mark Rackley. He has a lot of experience with alligators so I always guided him when we dived.”
After about a minute in the water, he was hit by what felt like a boat propeller moving at 50 miles per hour. “It came up behind me, so I didn’t even see or hear it coming,” he said.
Before realizing what had happened, Heim had been severely bitten in the head and hand by a 7-foot-long female alligator. “She actually gave me a second to feel my head and better understand what was happening to me,” Heim said. “But then she really tried to get me – I could see in her eyes that she wanted to kill me and finish the job. I had to dodge very quickly.”
Florida is home to 1.3 million alligators, and there is an average of 10 unprovoked attacks across the state each year, reports the Florida Wildlife Commission. Most alligators are naturally afraid of humans, but they can become aggressive once they begin associating humans with food, making it illegal to feed wild alligators.
Heim said this particular alligator may have learned to associate people with food. But because of the time of year, there was probably another, more seasonal, reason for their aggression.
“The professionals who removed her believe she was protecting a nest,” Heim said. “They didn’t see a nest on the side they were on, but the nest may have been on the other side of the river.”
Alligator mating season occurs between May and June each year, and egg laying lasts from June to July. Alligators are typically more active and territorial at this time of year, said Frank Mazzotti, an alligator expert and associate professor at the University of Florida news week.
“[Alligator attacks occur most frequently] during the warmest months of the year – May to September – but they can occur at any time,” he said. “Be careful, careful and pay attention to your surroundings.”
Heim said he was aware of alligator mating season but “just didn’t take it seriously” or seriously enough. “That was my fault.”
Although deaths from alligator bites are rare, Heim knows how lucky he was to have survived the attack. “The ability to react after that head trauma was a miracle in itself,” he said. “I was able to escape and climb onto the bank which was about 6 feet high […] But even if it just took my breath away, it would have been a whole different story.”
After pulling himself out of the water, Heim was taken to the hospital, where he received 34 staples in his head. “I’ve felt each of those 34 staples and they feel exactly how you think they do,” he said.
After two days in intensive care, Heim was sent home. But he said he felt like a “zombie” for days. “All that head trauma and blood loss just wiped me out. I was exhausted.”
The staples were removed after nine days, but Heim struggled with secondary infections and exhaustion for weeks. “When I found out I was going to live, I cried my eyes out like a baby, like I’ve never cried before,” he said. “It was all just pouring out of me, I was just so grateful for life.”
Nearly two years after the incident, Heim says the attack fundamentally changed his outlook on life. “I changed immediately,” he said. “I was very humbled to have survived after that mistake.
“I have great respect for this apex predator. I never wanted that alligator to die – I had a wildlife rep come up to my room to tell me everything and I told them, ‘Please don’t kill him.’ I was at her house.”
Heim now uses his passion for collecting shark teeth to raise awareness of Florida’s ecosystems and wildlife. He does this through his company SHRKco, which sells handcrafted shark tooth jewelry and donates a percentage of profits to marine exploration and conservation groups. “I love seeing people enjoying the same shark teeth that I’ve worked so hard and often risked my life for,” Heim said.
Although Heim has spent more time hunting for shark teeth than he used to, he has not encountered an alligator in the wild since the attack. He has actually been to the Myakka River twice since the incident, but he has always returned with other divers. “I did it right, much safer and at a much better season,” he said. “It was a great learning experience to take mating season seriously.”
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