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According to Florida Fish and Wildlife, there are about 10 unprovoked alligator attacks on humans every year. That puts your chances of being attacked by an alligator at one in 3.2 million, It may seem that alligators are easily enough avoided. But if, like Jeffrey Heim, your work is outside on the slow rivers of Florida, encountering an alligator is just another day at the office.
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Host: Welcome back to another episode of Out Alive. Before we get into today’s story, here are some words about our sponsor.
Before a recent trip to Florida, I gave my kids the talk. Stay away from the water’s edge. I’m not typically a helicopter parent, but the threat of some animals just creates a more visceral fear than others. Like all perceived threats in the wild, though, it helps to know the facts. Alligators can be found as far southwest as Texas and Oklahoma and along the southern states up into parts of North Carolina.
But for now, we’re going to stick with Florida, where today’s story takes place. According to Florida Fish and Wildlife, there are about 10 unprovoked alligator attacks on humans every year. That puts your chances at being attacked by an alligator at 1 in 3.2 million, but that number seems to be rising. The reason for this increase can be mainly explained by explosive population growth. In the 1980s, alligators were on the endangered species list, but in the last decade, their population has ballooned to over a million in Florida alone, meaning there’s about one alligator to every 20 residents of the state. It may seem that alligators are easily enough avoided. That’s not true for Jeffrey Heim who has built his career around another type of bigtooth predator. He’s made shark education and conservation part of his life’s work. But when your job and passion is collecting prehistoric shark teeth, encountering an alligator is just another day at the office.
Trailer: I made a decision to survive. You’re in that survival mode. The idea of dying wasn’t in my head. I knew immediately it was the worst-case scenario. I was in a fight-for-my-life situation. Whenever you walk out on these trails, you’re in their house. I’m Louisa Albanese, and you’re listening to Out Alive by Backpacker.
In each episode of this podcast, we’ll bring you real stories of real people who survived the unsurvivable. I saw the rope zip through the repel ring, and I couldn’t do anything. Learn what went wrong, what went right, and how you can escape if the worst-case scenario happens to you. There is no way we would find anybody alive.
Jeffrey Heim: My name is Jeffrey Heim. I’m the owner of SHRKco.com. My passion is finding giant shark teeth, specifically Megalodons here in ancient Florida’s oceans, which to me is just the ultimate life experience. It’s something I think about every single day. And there’s a lot of other people like me, believe it or not.
There’s a whole culture out here of fossil hunters and shark tooth hunters, so my mission is to help ancient sharks, save living sharks. I think it’s cool for their ancestors to directly be helping today’s sharks and SHRKco is just that vehicle.
Host: Jeffrey’s organization SHRKco finds and sells shark teeth fossils, jewelry, and apparel. They donate 10% of their profits to finsattached.org, an organization that conducts marine research to promote conservation. According to the New York Times, more than 3/4 of the world’s oceanic shark species are now under threat of extinction. While Florida law does require a $5 annual permit for collecting vertebrae fossils, collecting shark teeth are specifically exempt from the usual permits because they are so widely abundant.
Jeffrey Heim: When I used to work as a full-time spearfisherman in the keys. One of the guys that I lived with, his name is Mark Rackley. He’s one of the original Shark Week producers and cameramen. He did a bunch of stuff with National Geographic and everything, so he’s been in the industry a long time and he just invited me with his family to go look for shark teeth and dive in rivers in South Carolina.
We found them, and it just hooked me. It was the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my life, and when I went back to Florida, I realized I was an hour and a half drive away from the shark tooth capital of the world. Over the years, I slowly went through a painstaking process of trial and error to learn more and more.
Host: Since the collection of fossilized shark teeth isn’t regulated, it’s become exceedingly rare to find Megalodon teeth on beaches where thousands of tourists are searching daily on their vacations. Serious collectors have taken to scouring areas like creeks and riverbeds that were under the ocean millions of years ago. The less accessible a location is and the poorer the visibility, the better.
Jeffrey Heim: So the easier they are with accessibility, the less teeth there are. You have to go to some pretty treacherous areas to find the good stuff these days. At that time, I considered myself to be one of the more gutsy hunters that were gonna do whatever it takes to find them. And I just went back to this river that I had been to several times before and been the most successful at, so I went back, but all the conditions were bad for me to do that. It was not very smart of me, and it was the middle of gator mating season. I was alone, and I was free diving, so it was the perfect storm, honestly, for me to die that day,
Host: Jeffrey was freediving in the Myakka River: Florida’s first state-designated wild and scenic river. It flows through a vast expanse of undeveloped wetlands for 72 miles near Sarasota and into the Gulf of Mexico. The slow-moving current and stretches of pristine riverbank make for an ideal habitat for alligators. It was late May and the middle of gator mating season, when the animals are naturally more territorial
Jeffrey Heim: At gator mating season, the gators are always more aggressive. This river that I was diving in specifically is known to be much more wild, and natural and untouched and scenic. So there are a lot of alligators there specifically. On that day, I just set up at the riverbank, putting on my wetsuit and fins and snorkel and mask and everything.
There were actually two kayakers who went right past me and saw all my dive stuff. They were like, “What are you diving for?” I said, “Shark teeth.” And they were like, “Are you not worried about gators?” And I shook my head no and laughed. It was a really nice day. Quiet, calm, just slow-moving river, like barely any current. It’s about 8 to 15 feet deep, and I have to have a light to see. It’s really muddy and murky.
I can only see about 2 feet in front of me if that. For me in that river, that’s not too bad. I’ve dealt with a lot worse visibility, but most people consider that really scary. I’m looking for gators casually, but I had diven there so many times before. Look, I know they were there, but I was just too confident.
Host: We’ll be right back.
While Jeffrey sometimes uses scuba gear while hunting for teeth, today he was free diving, holding his breath underwater and periodically surfacing for air.
Jeffrey Heim: I was just in the water for about one minute and I felt like I got hit by a huge boat with a big propeller going 50 miles an hour. I was really confused, thinking it was a boat.
I was like, “Where did that boat come from?” I didn’t hear a motor. I didn’t hear anything. It’s just super quiet. Very stealthy, came from behind my head. I never saw anything coming. I was completely defenseless. It was just a lot of force and it just ripped me down and to the left. I’m wearing a GoPro on the top of my mask.
It gets ripped off in the attack. I check my head because I know something’s wrong. And I feel my scalp sideways, like my hair horizontal because it was flapped open. And I feel that with my hand, I see the blood on my hand, but I look up and the gator’s just looking right at me. And I was like, oh my gosh, it was a gator.
We are just looking at each other, and then she allows me to check my head and understand what’s going on for a second. She was a 7’ female, and when she bit my head and I looked up at her and realized that it was a gator, she was real mean and angry looking. I normally like alligators. I was fascinated by them and relatively enjoyed being around them, but this one looked mean, and I could tell she just wanted to eat me to remove me.
Host: While alligators are territorial and will defend a nest and their young from perceived threats, they generally don’t see humans as food. If you find yourself in close proximity to an alligator or being attacked, the best course of action is always to flee or run as fast as you can.
Jeffrey Heim: And then she lunges at me again, tries to get me, and I back away slowly. I’m as calm as I am now. Thank God I wasn’t flailing or freaking out, and then I look back at her, and then she really lunges at me. And that time I was like, “Okay, I gotta get outta here.” So I moved a lot quicker that time, climbed out of the bank, stumbled back to where my car was.
Luckily there were people right there walking back to their car too, and they called the police. One of them was an ex-firefighter. So he went right next door to this restaurant that was out there in the middle of nowhere. It’s just a scenic restaurant, right on the river where I parked. And he went in there, grabbed a first aid kit and wrapped my head and comforted me and stuff.
But there’s a couple times when I was about to pass out right there, and that’s where I thought I was gonna die. And just everyone else around me would continue to live, and I would just slip away. I wasn’t in any pain. Just apparently in shock. And then eventually the EMTs show up. The whole time, I’m nervous, joking with the paramedics, just kind of like trying to normalize the situation. I don’t know what to do. Honestly. I’m just nervous and talk to them as normal. We’ll talk about shark teeth just to comfort myself. Am I gonna pass out any second? Am I just gonna die? Am I gonna be a vegetable? Brain bleed? I’m thinking everything. I have no idea what’s going on.
Host: Jeffrey knew he suffered a serious bite to his head and also an injury to his hand. But he had no idea the true extent of his injuries, or if he would be okay, despite his calm demeanor, and attempts at humor, he was still deeply fearful for his life.
Jeffrey Heim: And then once we drove up to the hospital, they were like, “There’s gonna be a lot of people in here looking at you.” And they weren’t kidding. They rolled me out there. There were like 40 people just staring, ready to act and operate. And it hasn’t sunk in yet, the severity of the situation. I’m still just nervous, joking with everyone.
And they start cleaning the wound, then come the numbing shots, and then they start stapling. I had 34 staples, and once they stapled me up, they were like, “It’s not as deep as we thought it was, but let’s take the CT scan. We think you’re gonna live. Just to have the confirmation that at least you’re going to live.” I just started crying my eyes out like I’d never cried before. They let me kind of get it out a little bit, and then they’re like, “Alright, we need to get you in for the CT scan so we can see what’s really going on.” So I hold it a little bit in there, and then once they told me I was done with the CT scan, I just cried for another two hours. I was really intense because I can’t believe that I, first of all, being alone, if I got knocked out, I would’ve just drowned.
Even just like for a second, even gotten the wind knocked out of me, anything as simple as that, I would’ve drowned. I’m lucky she didn’t bite my face, my neck, my shoulder. She did bite my hand, but I’m lucky she didn’t rip it off or anything else off. And I’m lucky it was a perfect bite placement. It was terrible and painful and head trauma, but that’s the best out of the entire situation.
Especially since three people have died this year from alligator attacks. Someone got bit in the face yesterday by an alligator near me in the same county that I live in. It is very violent, very powerful, getting bit by an apex predator that has the bite force to cut through steel. That was just a very intense situation for me that I’m lucky to have lived.
Host: Professional trappers tried removing the gator to an alligator farm. But during the process, the female gator who bit Jeffrey in the head was ironically also bitten in the head by another larger gator, killing her. Experts believed that she attacked Jeffrey because she may have had a nest in the area, although her nest was never found.
Jeffrey Heim: There’s a reason why this river is now illegal to dive in, for not just the alligators. It’s considered a scenic river. And it’s now they’re enforcing it more because of, I guess, the attention that I drew to it from this attack, but less people are willing to hunt in that river because of how dangerous it is.
Host: After two months of recovery, Jeffrey was back in the wilderness hunting for shark teeth. While he’ll never dive in that spot again, he hasn’t slowed down his tooth hunting operations, which takes him to wild places across the state of Florida.
Jeffrey Heim: I went this past into some place, very treacherous, but on land, I hiked through 2 miles of brush at night in Florida’s wilderness. It was brutal, but I did really well. So some of the people who take the bigger risks have the bigger rewards. I am smarter now. I try to be a lot more cautious, especially in waters. I never dive alone. As a free diver, it’s not smart to be around alligators and just being all quiet and alone and free diving.
But the reason why I collect these teeth is, it actually started as a passion for me. I just really enjoyed it and still enjoy it. I’ve now turned into something bigger than me. It’s definitely dangerous diving in an alligator-infested river every single time, no matter who you are. But other than that, I have been relatively safer in the rivers and technically no time is safe, but every other time besides that, I was with a buddy, and we took more precautions than I did that day.
Host: While some may have seriously considered a career with less occupational hazard, throughout his recovery, Jeffrey’s respect for nature never wavered. Meanwhile, his newfound sense of caution informed other aspects of his life.
Jeffrey Heim: I’m a much safer driver now. I always check my blind spot two or three times before turning on the highway. I value life a little bit more. I think that day built a lot of character in me, sobered me up from being a little bit too risky. It cemented this drive of finding shark teeth in my life. It just showed me that this is what I’m here to do. And I want to do it for the right reasons too, using this as a platform to speak about conservation and helping, again, shark finning. But there’s also a lot of issues going on here in Florida, locally with red tide and pollution, and a lot of habitat loss for the animals that are already here that we’re trying to coexist with. So I’m just trying to bring awareness to that. That is the mission of my company, as well as to improve the world around us.
Host: This episode of Out Alive was produced and written by me, Louisa Albanese, along with Zoe Gates. Scoring and sound design was by Jason Patten. Thank you to Jeffrey Heim and Rob Carmichael for sharing your stories with us. Thanks for listening to Out Alive. And if you have a backcountry survival story, and you’re interested in sharing, you can email me at OutAlive@outsideinc.com.
This season of Out Alive is brought to you by Ricola. Out Alive is made possible by the members of Outside+. You can learn all about the benefits of membership like expert-led online classes at outsideonline.com/podplus, and enter the code OutAlive50 for 50% off.