Families were back in the clear waters of Blue Spring State Park on Wednesday, tubing and swimming down the narrow run that becomes packed with manatees every winter.
Park visitors said they weren’t deterred by what the Volusia County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed Wednesday was the first fatality from an alligator attack since 2007.
Jennifer Burroughs, 30, visiting with her family from Melbourne, said the news scared her at first. But she had already booked a cabin and spent money to make the visit happen.
“We booked it, we’re doing it, we’re committed,” she said as she was loading her small children into an inflatable ring. “I feel like I’m going to be on the lookout now. I know what happened, so I’m going to be looking out.”
Questions into the specific circumstances of 61-year-old James Okkerse’s death linger as officials remained closed-mouthed about what park officials did or did not do leading up to the tragedy. The day before, visitors reported two sightings of the 12-foot alligator linked to his death. The alligator was later shot and killed.
The DeBary man’s body was pulled from the shore of the swimming area Monday, apparently facedown, with wounds that looked to be from an alligator attack, after friends reported that he disappeared, according to documents of the incident. An outside expert assisted the medical examiner, according to county officials. The full autopsy report will take six to eight weeks to complete.
Russell Anen, who was swimming with Okkerse the morning of the attack, questioned park policies that led up to his friend’s death. His wife, Carol, called 911 to report that Okkerse had not returned on time from a swim upstream toward the spring.
Okkerse and the Anens were not told about the alligator sighting when they entered the park Monday, said Russell Anen, 73, who lives in Orange City about 3 miles from the park. They would have returned home had they known an alligator of that size was spotted nearby, he said.
“There should be more information put out there for keeping the park in control rather than things getting out of hand,” he said. “We’re not foolish people. We should have been cautioned, and we probably would have asked for the size of the alligator…”
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees state parks, did not respond Wednesday to questions about the events leading up to Okkerse’s death, including who decides when to open or close the swimming area when an alligator sighting is reported.
A timeline provided by the agency shows the swimming area closed for an hour Sunday from 11:55 a.m. until 12:45 p.m. after the alligator was spotted. Park staff searched by canoe and from the shore but did not see the gator. A second sighting was reported about 4 p.m.
Patrons of the park, who enjoy kayaking in the St. Johns River, snorkeling in the narrow channel leading to an underwater cave or viewing manatees during the winter months, are aware that alligators lurk in the waters.
A sign near the boardwalk that runs parallel to the river emanating from the spring warns that “large alligators … occasionally attack larger animals such as deer, and may even attack humans.”
Many alligators, including smaller ones at 4 to 6 feet, do not generally approach people, experts said. But they can become bold if people feed them directly or toss leftovers in the water.
“It trains them remarkably fast where to get food from,” said Jeff Woolfenden, a contract trapper for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “They ambush anything … they will eat anything they can get their grubby little grips on.”
Okkerse’s death marks the end of the state’s longest recorded period without a fatal alligator attack, according to FWC. The second-longest stretch occurred from 1979 to 1983. There have been 22 fatal alligator attacks since 1948. In the same time period, there have been 338 nonfatal alligator attacks.
Anen, Okkerse’s friend, said he hopes the tragedy will lead to better safety measures at the park.
He proposed removing all alligators from the swimming area.
“I just want things done that are right for Jim and the other people that attend the park,” he said. “I just want to make sure safety measures are in place.”