Travel

Staring down a saltwater crocodile

Up close and personal with the man-eaters of Australia’s Northern Territory

  • Oct 12, 2023
  • 1,187 words
  • 5 minutes
Robin Esrock comes face-to-face with a saltwater crocodile. (Photo courtesy Crocosaurus Cove)
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There’s no bargaining with a crocodile. “Look mate, I know you’re hungry, and I’m delicious, but you’re better off snacking on a wallaby.”  

Growing up to six metres in length, saltwater crocodiles are the world’s largest living reptile. Australia’s apex predator swims fast, creeps quietly, and lunges high, crushing prey with the mightiest bite force of any creature alive. Their chomp has 10 times the force of a great white shark, equivalent to dropping a three-tonne truck on your foot. Over-hunting once threatened the species with extinction, but since gaining official protection status in 1970, their numbers have rebounded. There are now an estimated 150,000 saltwater crocs in Australia, most of which prowl the coast and rivers of the Northern Territory. These fearsome, powerful man-hungry beasts are best observed from a safe and reasonable distance. You certainly don’t want to get close enough to meet their reptilian death stare, which is exactly what I’m about to do. 

Located in downtown Darwin, Crocosaurus Cove is home to several massive crocodiles, along with Australia’s largest collection of reptiles. It offers various educational programs, feeding sessions, and unique opportunities to interact with the crocs. Additionally, Crocosaurus Cove has animal welfare in mind with high husbandry standards, species-appropriate housing, individualized nutrition plans and a positive reinforcement approach when it comes to training.

Robin Esrock swimming with William and Kate the saltwater crocodiles. (Photo courtesy Crocosaurus Cove)
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At the daily Big Croc Feeding Show, park handlers justifiably use a very, very long stick with food on the end. Crowds gasp when they hear the loud whomp of croc’s jaws slamming together. While friendly park staff are fond of their crocs, it is safe to say the love flows in one direction; the reptiles wouldn’t hesitate to add trainer meat to their strictly monitored diet.    

Crocosaurus Cove’s residents are considered problematic because of their aggression and habit of attacking people, boats and cars. Unable to remain in the wild or co-habit with less belligerent creatures on a crocodile farm, they find their way to the Darwin facility. I first met Burt, arguably Australia’s most famous crocodile, having starred with Paul Hogan in the hit 80’s movie Crocodile Dundee. Weighing 700 kilograms, Burt has been in captivity for three decades and has appeared in many documentaries and films. Estimated to be over 80 years old, another croc named Chopper is missing an arm from a territorial tussle in the wild days of his youth. There are other enormous crocs that go by Wendell, Harry and Denzel, but I’ve got a date with the royal couple, William and Kate.  

The park’s most successful breeding pair were originally named Houdini and Bess, but crocodiles – who have been observed eating their young – don’t get attached to cute names. The pair were renamed after the royal couple visited Australia in 2011. I’m told that the almost 700-kilogram William is often held in check by his petite 110-kilogram female companion (sounds more like a Harry and Meghan scenario if you ask me). Either way, I have a date with the royal reptiles in the notorious Cage of Death.  

After signing the prerequisite waiver, I slip on my bathing suit and meet the staff at the monorail. A ladder is lowered into a five-inch-thick clear cylinder, and I climb inside with a pair of goggles. Immediately I notice scratch marks on the plastic, caused by gnashing teeth and sharp claws. Unlike shark cage diving, the crocs will not be merely curious about my presence; they want to eat me for lunch.

The five-inch thick cylinder is the only thing separating Esrock from the crocodiles. (Photo courtesy Crocosaurus Cove)
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As the water rises to my neck, a handler slaps the water with a stick to arouse the interest of William and Kate. Effortlessly they float over, eyeing me the way a kid looks at a cheeseburger. Ducking underwater, I observe their seemingly soft white bellies. From small open breathing slits in my plastic bubble above, I notice armour hides glistening in the sunshine. I’m strongly advised not to put any part of my body through those slits (you may as well advise me not to put my tongue into a blender). 

A handler ties chicken to a long stick and splashes it close to my head. As big as these crocs are, they only eat about three kilograms of food a week (these feedings make up part of that diet). William swims over to me and scratches the cage, banging his snout against it. I observe his 66-white pyramid-shaped teeth and the soft pink recess of his triangular mouth. He flashes me that famous crocodile smile. Through the slits in the cylinder, we have a real human-crocodile moment: I look straight into his golden eyeball, and he looks deep into my soul. I wonder what he’s thinking… he’s probably wondering how to eat me. Every time he bangs the cage, I almost jump out of my skin.  

After my 15 minutes is up, the crane raises the cage and transports me over to Chopper’s lair and back to the loading ramp. I breathe a sigh of relief when I exit the tube. Crocodile attacks are extremely rare in Australia; there are only about two deaths a year, typically involving people swimming in places they were warned to avoid. Still, the growing number of crocodiles brings the potential of more attacks, and being ‘Croc-Wise’ is taken very seriously in northern Queensland and the Northern Territory. Unless cleared for swimming, one must assume that beaches or rivers have a beastie patiently waiting to pounce. Rest assured, it’s much safer to encounter them inside the Cage of Death.

Sweetheart, the famous crocodile. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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