Sanibel Trip - April 2012 - Gators in the Refuge

I recently watched the reenactment of a story of a young man, Dave, who decided he would impress a group of friends by swimming across a Florida canal to a pier and back. Dave’s friends were gathered at a cottage home, celebrating a recent college graduation. They were busy reminiscing, telling stories from their recent past and speculating where they might find themselves a year or two from now.

When Dave suggested he would dive in and swim to the pier, the friends softly resisted but they knew that once Dave got an idea in his head he refused to give it up; it was already a foregone conclusion.

The problem is he went for a swim in water that was teeming with alligators.

Before his friends knew it, Dave had yanked off his shirt and dived into the water, determined to have another fun story to share for years to come. He swam to the pier and his friends – spotting an alligator moving toward him in the water – yelled at the top of their lungs to warn him. He started to swim back, but within a couple of breaststrokes, the gator lunged from the depths, finding Dave’s left arm.

It sank its teeth in deep and as Dave instinctively pulled his arm, he could hear his bones crackle and break. The gator then began to spin and whirl, something called “the death roll,” which alligators do in order to drown their prey and more easily complete their kill.

Dave could feel the power of the beast turning and flopping him around like a rag doll. With his free arm, he grabbed a nearby buoy in attempt to keep himself above water for air. Part of him, Dave said later, just wanted the excruciating pain and conflict with the beast to go away, so even death was welcomed. Another part wanted to live. He realized it was just himself, the gator, and something spiritual (e.g., God) out there in the water.

Dave decided he would not give up. He turned to some of the messages of mental toughness he had learned from the Army and he thought, “I must keep fighting, I can’t just give in to this gator.” But as the reptile continued to spin, Dave gasped for breath, losing hold of the buoy.

The gator started to take him down, so Dave stretched his free arm out as close as he could get to the gator’s eyes and just dug in. He dug in 2 inches deep, gouging the gator’s eye sockets. Then, there was quiet in the water.

Dave quickly swam for shore with one arm. His friends helped pull him to shore, made a tourniquet and put deep but painful pressure on the area that used to be his arm, waiting for the ambulance they’d already called. Local police arrived and had to shoot several alligators attempting to come ashore to finish the kill.  The pilot of the emergency helicopter counted 97 alligators lurking in the water.

Dave was saved. He ultimately received a donated prosthetic arm, and has returned to normal functioning, but with several life lessons.

This story, like many stories, presents several teaching opportunities, including some on character strengths. Here are some concepts and questions to reflect on:

  • Strengths spotting. What character strengths do you spot in the story? I’m confident that you can use this list here and discover several. What strengths did Dave use to save himself?
  • Strengths overuse: What strengths did Dave bring forth too strongly that contributed to his being in this dangerous situation?
  • Strengths underuse: What strengths did Dave not use that might have prevented the situation?

Before you read further, reflect on your responses to the above questions.

Here are my thoughts. What would you add to these?

Dave certainly displayed perseverance. On one hand, his perseverance (resilience to keep going) is partly what saved him and on another hand it is the overuse of perseverance (rigidity and stubbornness) that led him to the situation in the first place. Creativity, better stated here as ingenuity, was remarkably applied in his tactic to go after the alligator’s eyeballs. Hope and spirituality seemed to be working in combination to serve Dave as well.

The clear winner for underuse is prudence, as Dave threw caution and risk assessment to the wind, seemingly ignorant of the potential consequences of his actions. Underuse of judgment was significant since he did not appear to use much critical thinking to weigh alternate options. Other dynamics seemed to be apparent such as an overuse of zest (enthusiasm), humor, and bravery, as well as an underuse of humility.

As you can see, strengths (overuse and underuse) got him in the situation and it was strengths use that got him out.

One can never know when a particular strength will be needed in a particular situation, so your best bet is, as the VIA Institute says, to “know your 24!”

It just might save your life.


  • For another example where use of strengths saved a life, check out the VIA Institute’s channel on YouTube and watch this video of positive psychologist, Dr. Tayyab Rashid, sharing how he used strengths when he was held by gunpoint in his own car!
  • To measure your character strengths and discover your signature strengths, go to
  • To apply character strengths in your practice and life, go to

Creative Commons License photo credit: pmarkham