ATLANTA – Authorities have reopened beaches along the Georgia coast after a large alligator spotted in the Atlantic Ocean was captured at a popular tourist spot near Savannah.
The gator, estimated to be 8 to 10 feet long, was caught about 2:30 p.m. Friday and relocated to the Savannah River, Tybee Island Fire Chief Ashely Fields said. Lifeguards on personal watercrafts ran patterns around the gator, pushing him toward the shore, before he was eventually reeled in as about 100 onlookers cheered, Fields said.
"It was a relief for everybody," he said by phone. "People were very happy to get back in the water."
The gator was spotted early Friday morning in the water off the beaches on the south end of Tybee Island. Fields said the gator stayed about 20 to 30 feet away from the beach. All beaches were then closed but have now been reopened.
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 freshwater 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 state 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.
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 across 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.
Associated Press writer Jonathan Landrum Jr. contributed to this report.