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A Largo lake where gator attacked man was drained. Where did the gators go?

Taylor Lake acquired national notoriety last year when a man diving for disc-golf strays was attacked by an alligator and died.
 
An alligator swims in Taylor Lake near the scene where a man was found dead after going into the water to retrieve lost disc golf discs.
An alligator swims in Taylor Lake near the scene where a man was found dead after going into the water to retrieve lost disc golf discs. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Oct. 27

LARGO — Taylor Lake doesn’t look itself these days, but that’s part of a plan to get it all spiffed up.

Created in the 1930s with federal funding, the 53-acre lake is in the heart of Pinellas County’s Taylor Park, with both recreational beauties named for the early 20th century civic leader John S. Taylor.

In early September, county Public Works crews and contractors launched a $4.4 million project to reconstruct an aging seawall type of structure at the northern end of Taylor Lake and a dam-like “weir” used to control its water level. They first had to drain large quantities of water from the lake, dramatically lowering its water level to reveal mud, grass and rocks around its most shallow northern end.

And that’s had some people wondering.

Taylor Lake acquired national notoriety last year when a man diving for disc-golf strays was attacked by an alligator and died. So, with that recent reminder of the lake’s resident gators, park patrons — including bicyclists and pedestrians who daily circle the lake — have wondered where those formidable creatures went when the water level was lowered.

Sean McGuinness, 47, was photographed while retrieving discs lost in Taylor Lake from the nearby disc golf course. He was later found dead in the alligator-infested lake.
Sean McGuinness, 47, was photographed while retrieving discs lost in Taylor Lake from the nearby disc golf course. He was later found dead in the alligator-infested lake. [ Derek Erskin via Spectrum Bay News 9 ]

“We’ve been wondering where they might have gone, or if they were maybe still there somewhere,” said Angelina Evans, who plays disc golf regularly on a park course abutting the lake.

Some park patrons speculated the county may have removed some of the gators.

“They didn’t take any of the animals out,” said county spokesman Tony Fabrizio. “They lowered the water level of the lake, so the animals would move away from where the work is being done.”

The southern end of the lake is significantly deeper and remains full, so that’s where the gators headed, apparently. The lake is a popular fishing spot and its fish population also has had to move to new quarters during the construction work.

Meantime, there is a park road — or “bridge” as park officials dub it — that bisects the lake, separating the northern part from the long portion of the lake extending southward. So, some have speculated some gators might have crawled out at the lake’s edge to scuttle around and cross the road to get to deeper waters — likely at night, as they are mostly nocturnal creatures.

As one park wag observed, “Animals will take the path of least resistance.”

Fabrizio acknowledged that a culvert in the wall below the road probably would be awkward for alligators commuting southward to traverse. But he said county personnel haven’t gotten any reports of gators moving across the road.

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“If it happened, we didn’t see it,” he added.

An alligator warning sign is pictured in the water near the scene where a man was found dead after going into the lake to retrieve lost disc golf discs last year in Largo.
An alligator warning sign is pictured in the water near the scene where a man was found dead after going into the lake to retrieve lost disc golf discs last year in Largo. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Lyle Fowler, operations manager for the county’s Conservation Resource Department, said he hadn’t received any reports of gators crossing the bridge road, though he noted some were seen “congregating and kind of basking in the sun” in a corner of the lake near the bridge soon after the construction work began.

Asked if those gators — or others among the dozens who reside in the lake — might have crossed the bridge at nightfall, Fowler said, “That would seem to be a reasonable explanation.”

Jim Burlton, who’s been walking the park’s lake loop for the past 18 years, said he hasn’t spotted any recent bridge road crossings by gators, though he has seen such activity many times over the years.

“It’s like a Godzilla movie,” Burlton said. “But during the day, they are aware of you and leave you alone.”

Turtle crossings are another regular occurrence, and some other park regulars have reported seeing that during the lake construction, he noted.

Gator migrations

Just last month, there was another fatality involving an alligator when a woman’s body was discovered in a large alligator’s mouth near a canal in an area of unincorporated Largo less than a mile from Taylor Lake. Some now wonder if the gator had migrated there from the lake after being disrupted by construction.

“I have no reason to believe that,” Fowler said. “But there is no way of knowing. They migrate all the time, and the fact that they migrate doesn’t make them more aggressive or likely to attack.”

The Taylor Lake construction work is expected to last at least into November.

Taylor Lake’s water level has been lowered so far that mud, grass and rocks are visible over a large portion of its northern end.
Taylor Lake’s water level has been lowered so far that mud, grass and rocks are visible over a large portion of its northern end. [ CARL DiOrio | Tampa Bay Newspapers ]

Water will be “allowed to fill up again at that point,” according to an online post by county officials.

That would seem to indicate a reliance on rainfall, sometimes considered a better means of refilling lakes, as it causes less “turbidity,” or muddying of the waters. But Fabrizio said plans call for a return of normal water levels “immediately after the repair.”

That would mean refilling the lake through a large culvert in the northern-end wall along Eighth Avenue that’s being repaired.

Public Works engineers decided to take on the Taylor Lake reconstruction project after noticing some seepage from the lake under Eighth Avenue, said Amin Vasouli, a county project manager.

Projects are staged regularly to repair all sorts of county infrastructure, but those contacted in the county’s Public Works Department couldn’t remember anything on the order of the Taylor Lake project and its massive water diversion.

In 2003, there was some routine post-storm drainage that got a bit out of hand and lowered the water level more than 5 feet.

Wooded acreage

The entrance to Taylor Park, which boasts some 157 wooded acres, is situated nearby, at 1100 Eighth Ave. SW.

The park’s namesake civic leader — Taylor served as mayor of Largo for several years — is remembered as a “staunch supporter of Pinellas County’s independence from Hillsborough County,” according to an online county post.

Taylor served as a state representative from 1905 until he was defeated in 1910 for his stand on creating a separate Pinellas.

Then, as a lobbyist attending the 1911 session of the legislature, he successfully assisted the effort for Pinellas’ “independence” in 1912.

Taylor Park’s amenities include group picnic shelters and restrooms, playground equipment, the disc-golf course and a 1.8-mile exercise trail around the lake. In 1990, park access to the adjacent Pinellas Trail was completed.

For those interested in the nitty-gritty of the Taylor Lake seawall and weir activity, the county offers this: “This project consists of the replacement of the existing vinyl sheet pile wall along the north end of Taylor Lake, drainage improvements along Eighth Avenue SW, and repair of the existing pedestrian bridge that joins the sidewalk running along Eighth Avenue SW.

“New drainage structures with a curb and gutter system will be installed on the south side of Eighth Avenue SW, and all existing closed-flume inlets on the north side will be replaced with curb inlets to minimize erosion. The existing sidewalk on the south side of Eighth Avenue SW will be widened.”

Crews also will be repaving Eighth Avenue, from the pedestrian crosswalk to the main park entrance.