As the temperatures started rising Saturday morning, Hilton Head Island beachgoers weren't the only ones looking to cool off in the ocean.
A 4-foot-long alligator was spotted in the surf a little before 10 a.m. Saturday between South Forest Beach and Sea Pines Beach Club, according to Hilton Head Island Shore Beach Service officials.
Although the gator was "out of the main flow of beach activities," it still managed to gather a small crowd, said Alan Reece, general manager of Shore Beach Service.
The alligator picked a popular weekend to make its beachfront debut. RBC Heritage Presented By Boeing, which brings more than 100,000 people into Sea Pines, was in full swing on Saturday at the Harbour Town Golf Links, where alligators are also known to spark excitement across the tournament grounds.
"Our staff was alerted and responded down there to verify that it indeed was a gator," Reece said. "There were some beachgoers hanging out who were very concerned about it."
The beach service notified Critter Management Inc., which typically removes nuisance gators on the island, but was instructed first to work with the Sea Pines Wildlife Management department.
In the meantime, the gator apparently disappeared.
"The last time our staff saw it, it was hanging out at the water’s edge," Reece said.
Shore Beach Service staff advised nearby beachgoers to stay away from the alligator but "did not follow the trail of the gator" to see if it disappeared into the water or made its way over the dune line and off the beach, according to Reece.
"In a perfect world, if no one was around, it would cross the beach, go over the sand dune and head back to where it came from. They have a very good sense of direction for that," he said.
But, on the other hand, if the alligator felt threatened by the curious people, it also may have run back into the ocean, Reece added.
As of 3 p.m. Saturday, Reece said the beach service had not received a sighting or complaint about the gator in three hours.
Reece said the alligator was alive and did not appear to look sick or injured.
An alligator spotting on Hilton Head beaches is not a unusual phenomenon.
"We’ll probably get five to six (alligators) a year that will come out onto the beach," Reece said. "Most of the time they (Critter Management Inc.) will remove it unless the gator has decided to take off."
Why was the gator on the beach?
While beachgoers may encounter a range of marine creatures when they're swimming in the ocean, alligators typically are not one of them.
Alligators are primarily freshwater animals and can only tolerate saltwater for a few hours or a few days at the most, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But since the weather is warming up on Hilton Head, alligators may be found almost anywhere — including on the beach.
April marks the end of alligator hibernation and the beginning of courtship, followed by mating season in May and June.
During this time, alligators are on the prowl and extremely active.
"Mating season is just starting, so you'll find them anywhere," said Joe Maffo, owner of Critter Management Inc. "You'll see them all over — in garages, under cars — so be careful."
Asked why the alligator may have been found on the beach, Maffo said "the little guy was running for its life."
"That's exactly what it is. The big boys (alligators) come in and take over (their territory), so they flee," he said.