If you were a shipwrecked sailor lost 20 miles out to sea, you'd probably imagine having a lot more dire things to worry about than getting chomped by a 5-foot freshwater alligator — but think again.

In a bizarre discovery, researchers with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources were out conducting a study on North Atlantic right whales when they came across something they'd never expect to see so far out at sea: a Georgia alligator.

According to the report, the first to spot the wayward gator were whale observers Monica Zani and Heather Foley, who at first thought they were looking at a partially submerged tire or perhaps a dead alligator carcass washed out to sea. When the boat was pulled in closer, however, the researchers were surprised to see that the animal was still alive and able to swim.

"Heavy rains that washed marsh wrack and other debris miles into the sea from the mouth of the Altamaha River may be to blame for the bizarre event," said Georgia Department officials Christina Summers and Brad Winn.

The report noted that the crew came across a rip-line of marsh wrack (accumulated dead marsh grass), pollen and other swept items shortly after discovering the gator, likely all pulled out to sea on the same river plume. It's possible that the gator was too chilled by the cold river currents to fight the water that carried it.

One of the reasons that the discovery was so unusual is that Georgia alligators are typically a freshwater species. Although they occasionally venture into salt or estuarine waters in search of food, they are ill-equipped for sea voyages and prefer to stay close to shore. "They feed heavily on marine fish, raccoons and feral hogs in the marshes, and swimming in the surf is not an unusual observation," Winn said. "On more than one occasion we have pulled stingray barbs out of the cheeks of 12-foot males."

Unfortunately, the fate of this mysterious ocean alligator is unknown, since researchers left the scene shortly after snapping a few photographs. "Considering that we were in an inflatable boat 20 miles offshore, we didn’t want to risk having the gator inadvertently puncture the boat," said Foley.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Alligator found 20 miles out to sea swimming with whales
Stunned researchers came across the Georgia alligator while they were looking for North Atlantic right whales.