'Take Mating Season Seriously' Says Florida Man Who Was Bitten by Alligator

Florida resident Jeffrey Heim was searching for shark teeth in the Myakka River when his life was changed forever. Now he hopes that sharing his near-death encounter with an alligator will help save others from the same fate.

That day—May 30, 2021—Heim made two major mistakes. He dove alone—I was feeling invincible—and during mating season

"I had dove plenty of times before in that river—I'd say three or four times," Heim told Newsweek. "Each trip I would spend hours in there. But I would go with my mentor, and very experienced extreme cameraman, Mark Rackley. He's got a lot of experience with alligators specifically so I would always take his lead when we went diving."

Diver Bitten By 7 Foot Alligator
Jeffrey Heim diving for shark teeth a month after being bitten by a 7-foot alligator. SHRKco/Jeffrey Heim

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 from behind me so I never even saw or heard it coming," he said.

Before he realized what had happened, Heim had been seriously bitten on the head and hand by a 7-foot-long female alligator. "She actually gave me a second to feel my head and have a better understanding of what was happening to me," Heim said. "But then she really tried to get me—I could see in her eyes, she wanted to kill me and finish the job. I had to very quickly dodge out of the way."

Beware of Mating Season

Florida is home to 1.3 million alligators, and an average of 10 unprovoked attacks occur across the state every year, the Florida Wildlife Commission reports. Most alligators are naturally afraid of humans, but they can become aggressive when they start to associate humans with food, which is why it is illegal to feed wild alligators.

Heim said that this particular gator may have learned to associate humans with food. But, because of the time of year, there was probably another, more seasonal reason for her aggression.

"The professionals who removed her believe she was protecting a nest," Heim said. "They didn't see a nest at the side that they were on, but the nest could have been on the other side of the river."

1 of 2

Alligator mating season occurs between May and June every year, and egg laying continues through June into July. At this time of year, alligators are typically more active, and more territorial, alligator expert and associate professor at University of Florida, Frank Mazzotti, told Newsweek.

"[Alligator attacks occur most frequently] during the warmest months of the year—May to September—but they can occur anytime," he said. "Be careful, cautious, and aware of your surroundings."

Heim said that he had been aware of alligator mating season, but he "just didn't take it seriously," or seriously enough. "That was my mistake."

Two Days in the ICU

Although fatalities from alligator bites are rare, Heim knows just 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 get away and climb out onto the bank, which was about 6 feet high [...] But even if she had simply knocked the wind out of me, it would have been a completely different story."

After hauling himself out of the water, Heim was taken to hospital, where he received 34 staples in his head. "I felt every one of those 34 staples, and they feel exactly like you think they will," he said.

Jeffrey Heim After An Alligator Attacked Him
Jeffrey Heim after the attack in May 2021. Heim had to have 34 staples in his skull. Jeffrey Heim

After two days in the ICU, Heim was sent home. But he said he felt like a "zombie" for days after. "The whole head trauma and blood loss just wiped me out. I was exhausted."

The staples were taken out after nine days, but Heim continued to battle with follow-up infections and exhaustion for weeks. "Once I found out I was going to live I just cried my eyes out like a baby, like I've never cried before," he said. "It all just flowed out of me, uncontrollably, I was just so thankful for life."

Nearly two years after the incident, Heim says that the attack has profoundly changed his outlook on life. "I immediately changed," he said. "I was very humbled to have survived after making that mistake.

"I have tremendous respect for that apex predator. I never wanted that alligator to die—I had a wildlife representative visit me in my room to get a recount of everything and I told them 'please don't kill it.' I was in her home."

Jeffrey Heim with megalodon tooth
Photo of Jeffrey Heim holding a megalodon tooth. Heim now sells shark teeth jewelry to raise money and awareness for shark conservation. SHRKco / Jeffrey Heim/Instagram

Heim now uses his passion for collecting shark teeth to raise awareness about Florida's ecosystems and wildlife. He does this through his company SHRKco, which sells handmade shark tooth jewelry and donates a percentage of profits to marine research and conservation groups. "I love seeing people enjoy the same shark teeth I worked so hard for and, a lot of the time, risked my life for," Heim said.

Despite spending more time than he used to hunting for shark teeth, Heim has not encountered an alligator in the wild since the attack. He has actually been back to the Myakka River twice since the incident, but has always gone back with other divers. "I did it the right way, much safer and at a much better time of year," he said. "It was a big learning experience to take mating season seriously."

Do you have an animal or nature story to share with Newsweek? Do you have a question about alligators? Let us know via science@newsweek.com.