Ever since I was a child, I’ve had both an obsessive fascination and fear of saltwater crocodiles. They are one of the only creatures alive today that have been around since the prehistoric time of the dinosaurs — in fact, they are considered by some to be living dinosaurs. Since coming back from the brink of extinction in the mid-20th century, anyone venturing into the Australia’s northern territory can see one … just look on the river banks — or the beaches (crocodiles have been known to surf the waves around Darwin, not kidding). But considering they are expert stealth predator, and several people die every year from croc attacks, how close can you get? Pretty close, it turns out.
Yes, you can get this close. And yes, it is terrifying.
But before I hit something called the Cage of Death, I’m going to ease into it. Outside of Darwin, on the banks of the Adelaide River, are the Jumping Croc Cruises, where for $30 dollars you can hop on a flat-bottomed boat with roughly 20 other tourists (no dogs allowed, for obvious reasons) and cruise down the muddy river looking for crocodiles, preferably at feeding times (late morning or evening).
This guy was about 20 feet long … and very hungry.
Boat staff on the boat lure crocs from the riverbanks by attaching red meat to fishing lines and tapping the water with it.
“They feel the vibration in the water and come,” said our baiter, Kyla. “We like to make them jump so they work for their food and burn some calories. The exertion it takes for them to jump cancels out the calories from the meat, so they do still have to hunt in the wild.”
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Crocs on the cruise jump as high as five feet for meat — and have been known to jump even higher.
And when they come for food — they come close. The crocs on my cruise jumped about two feet away from the boat, and sometimes their jaws snapped at head level. But these weren’t even the biggest crocs in the river. One, named Michael Jackson, was shot recently because he’d attacked and eaten a local fisherman. He was said to be almost 10 feet long. And then there was “the Monster” — a 27-foot croc killed in 1957 by a 30-year-old woman.
A replica of the largest croc ever caught in Australia, some 30 years ago. There may be others of comparable size in the wild today.
I could fit my whole torso in its mouth. #supercreepy.
As crazy as this cruise was, it was nothing compared to swimming with the crocs. In clear water, and in a clear tube that was scratched.
“How’d the tube get all those scratches?” I asked James Robinson, marketing coordinator of Crocosaurus Cove (which helps run the Cage of Death cruises).
“From when the crocodiles attack and try to bite their way into the cage,” James said.
“Oh God,” I thought.
“So — have they ever broken in?” I asked, remembering that scene in “Jaws 3-D” when the shark breaks into the Lucite walkway).
“No, not yet, but one tube was broken. We got the guy out safely, though,” James said.
Design by Hanifa Abdul Hameed for Yahoo Travel.
And so — into the Cage of Death I went with Chopper, the second-largest croc in the park, which, at over a ton, was too large. I’d love to describe it, but frankly, I was a little paralyzed with fear. I do remember thinking, “OH MY GOD, I’M GOING TO DIE!” and “Maybe it’s not so bad … OH LORD, HE’S COMING RIGHT AT ME!” and then getting out safely as Chopper looked on, mildly angry he hadn’t gotten a midday snack.
It was scary — mind-blowingly terrifying, in fact — but I’m so glad I did it. Maybe my fear is still there, but I did face down that long, scaly demon. At least once.