During a recent trip to Darwin, my partner Bec and I did the tourist thing and took the kids to a crocodile park.
Bec and I have a fascination with crocs and we are in no way new to being in their company. Both of us lived in Weipa for many years and, with all the camping and fishing that I have done all over the Cape, seeing a croc is not exactly a new experience. However, when we were faced with the opportunity to be placed in a Perspex cage and lowered into a pool of big saltwater crocodiles, we jumped at the chance.
Being a little bored watching the crocs sleep while we were invading their waterhole, I decided to attract the attention of a large male salty while we were positioned over the top of him by swimming to the bottom of my safety cage and knocking. Just when I thought I irritated him enough for him to move away, he turned and snapped down on the cage, right where my head was positioned. If there was not a thick sheet of Perspex between myself and the croc it would have been lights out.
Interestingly, this all happened too quick for me to see and if it were a real situation, I doubt very much I would have even seen it coming. My head would have been in the mouth of the croc quicker then I could blink.
I have witnessed a croc grabbing a pig from a river bank on the Cape and, again, what struck me the most about this attack was that it happened so quick. The croc moved slowly out of the water towards a herd of pigs feeding on the river bank, which seemed oblivious to the danger approaching. Suddenly, a pig appeared in the jaws of the croc, seemingly without the reptile moving, demonstrating how a fully charged croc can attack quicker then the eye can follow.
It is enough to get you thinking twice about camping around croc country. Make no mistake, crocodiles see us as food. I was a paramedic operating an ambulance from Weipa and in that time we had two crocodile attacks that we attended. Both survived but with horrific injuries and a number of locals disappear on the Cape, never to be seen again.
So just how do we go about protecting ourselves as anglers when in croc country? If we plan on fishing, camping or boating anywhere that crocodiles inhabit then there is a risk of being attacked, so we must examine how to limit the threat.
The golden rule is not to swim in waters where there are likely to be crocs. It may sound strange to someone that does not live around crocs but even I am guilty of being complacent and have jumped into their territory. Crocs are like armed street gangs, they do not take kindly to strangers invading their turf. Nesting mothers are particularly aggressive, usually from around January to April, but breeding season can start as early as September. There was a little creek near Weipa that I fished regularly and had a cranky croc chase me out of the place a couple of times. You don’t want to mess with a 200kg hormonal salty.
Crocodiles seem to think that they cannot be seen, which is often the case at night, but it pays to keep an eye out for what looks like a floating log that will often be swimming against the current. They may stay on the surface but more often than not they dive and reappear for another look before diving again, moving through the water without causing a single ripple.
Crocs will often stalk their prey. This is not a game of hide and seek that the croc is playing with you – take this as a warning and move on.
Crocs are more active at night. They like to use their long body and tail to herd fish up into the shallow water for them to feed on. Approaching the water’s edge at night can lead you right into the jaws of a croc, so keeping vigilant with a strong torch and avoiding deep, dark water on the edge of the river is vital.
Their eyes will light up bright red at night, resembling the tail lights of a car, so they can’t be mistaken. When we camp on the river for a few days and have to take a bath, we have one or two watch the water while the other two wash up and always select a section of water that is clear and shallow – never enter the water at night, bathing is a daylight option only.
These rules can also apply when launching and retrieving boats. All boat ramps on the Cape are very well lit for this reason but a strong torch is still a must.
Crocs are smart predators. When cleaning fish around boat ramps don’t leave scraps behind as crocs will soon learn that boats coming into the ramp means fish frames will be on the menu. The last thing any local wants is visitors training the local reptiles to hang around the boat ramps. This also applies for camp sites.
Never approach the water’s edge at the same location every day and don’t throw fish frames into the river or leave frames or food scraps around the camp site. Instead, take them fishing with you and get rid of them away from camp. Some campsite croc attacks have been put down to campers going to the same place on the water’s edge every day and a smart croc learning the camper’s routine was there waiting for them.
Fishing the river edge is normally safe at around 5m but stay alert and watch for that stalking croc. These reptiles are lighting quick in the water but are very sluggish on land over distances more than a few metres. In Lynne Kelly’s book, Evolutions Greatest Survivor – Crocodile, she writes that saltwater crocodiles can run at a speed of 12-14km/h over a distance of only 30m before they tire.
Crocs are more of an opportunistic ambush predator than something that will pursue its prey. The myth of running in a zigzag pattern if being chased is exactly that, a myth. While you are zigging and zagging, the croc will be running straight for you. Run fast and straight without looking back is the key.
Another tip is not to use a cast net with the rope lassoed around your wrist. A Weipa local found this out the hard way a few years back when he was chased by a croc after casting his net, only to have the net snag on a rock while he was running for safety. The fisherman lived but the net didn’t and it could have been very ugly.
Make no mistake, being in croc country is a risk in itself but it is one that I have accepted as a part of being on and around the water.
There is no absolute way to protect yourself from crocodile attacks, however the risk is reduced significantly by following some safety tips and being vigilant.
Croc safety tips
• Never swim in crocodile inhabited waters;
• Watch for crocs around the water’s edge, especially at night;
• Always use a strong torch at night;
• Use a variety of spots along the river to wash or collect water;
• Camp well back from the water’s edge (approx 50m)
• Dispose of fish scraps away from the camp site and never near boat ramps;
• When possible, have a spotter look out for you in a clear, shallow section of water when washing, collecting water or launching/retrieving boats. Make sure this shallow section is large enough to be able to spot an approaching croc.