Foamy green algae floats in a thick film across the stagnant pond, concealing the depths from prying human eyes. I stand close to the fence, idly resting one hand on the chain link fence separating me from the contents of the lake. Our guide for the day, a gregarious man with a morbid sense of humour, walks up to the gate of the enclosure, looks back at me, and says, “See that smashed bit near the top? That’s where one of our boys decided a tourist got too close.” He laughs and adds, “Best to keep hands off the fence, you never know what might be lurking underneath.”
Just then a pair of eyes rise to the surface, less than a meter behind the dismally weak looking fence. The algae covered face of a salt water crocodile stares back at me with all the intensity of a predator from the Triassic age. I jump back, hands now safely behind my back, and the guide begins our introduction to the Malcolm Douglas Crocodile Park in Broome, Western Australia.
Salt Water Crocodiles
Salt water crocodiles are a fact of life in the north of Australia where their populations are thriving thanks to recent classification as a protected species. These stealth predators regularly grow to 6.3 meters in length and can crush metal with 16,460 newtons of bite force, the strongest measurable bite in the animal kingdom. The truly massive beasts, those who have reached the tail end of a 70-year life span, can weigh over 1,200 kilos and be as wide as a sedan. They are true survivors, relics from an age 200 million years ago when dinosaurs ruled the land.
Salt water crocodiles hunt with impressive cunning for a creature with a brain size the size of a walnut and will remember where one goes down to the river. They will lay in wait and they will hunt humans. There are a couple of deaths most years in the northern reaches of Australia, in a land where humans and salties (as they are affectionately known in Australia) coexist. However, crocodiles are misunderstood by many people and as the tour continues our guide, Johnny, begins to explain the truth of these prehistoric giants.
“A croc, especially a big saltie like this here Mauler, keeps to its territory,” Johnny explains as he lets himself into an enclosure labeled Mauler: Captured and taken to the park after mauling two horses. “If you stay out of his river, he’ll keep you out of his mouth.”
He stands behind a low fence, no higher than his waist, pulls a fish frame out of his bucket, and shakes it over the fence. “Lunch time, big man, come and get it you big oaf.” The croc at the other end of the pond doesn’t move.
“Mauler, you’re making me look bad, aint you hungry?” Johnny picks up a mangled hard rubber ball on a rope and lobs it at the 6-meter-long croc’s head. In an instant, the previously comatose croc whips his head around, hisses, snaps his muscular jaws, and slides into the pond. I am amazed at the speed that such an unwieldy looking body can move in the water. Mauler hauls himself onto land in front of the guide, rises high onto his two front legs, and snatches the fish out of Johnny’s hand. This guy is brave…or crazy, I think as I watch Mauler devour a meter-long mackerel in one gulp.
With Mauler happily digesting his lunch back in the murky depths of his pool, Johnny continues his public re-education campaign. “The thing about crocs, is they’re creatures of habit, they’re deadly predators, but, if you know their habits, they’re not gonna eat you.” Johnny smiles at the crowd, a wide, teeth baring grin vaguely resembling that of his beloved charges. “You gotta know if you’re in saltie territory, you don’t go swimming, you never return to the same place at the river’s edge, and you leave ‘em be. Now who wants to feed Man Eater?”
Sleeping with Crocodiles
About a week later I’m lying awake, staring at the thin mesh roof of our tent, listening to the sounds of the Fitzroy River at night. The river is alive with noise, fish jumping, bat wings flapping erratically, and the telling swish of a salt water crocodile sliding into the water. I close my eyes, trying to will myself back to sleep, but all I can think about is Mauler annihilating that mackerel. Don’t worry, I tell myself, remember what Johnny said, if you stay out of their river, they’ll keep you out of their mouth. I roll over, put my ear plugs in, and am thankful for the steep river bank separating us from the beautiful, but fearsome locals.