Biggest & Baddest Field Journals: Monster Croc

In the oceans and rivers of Southeast Asia, Oceania and Australia, there is a monster from earth’s prehistory: the saltwater crocodile. These massive creatures typically measure more than 20 feet in length, but there have been reports of sightings of giants exceeding 30 feet. They have a deadly reputation and have been known to attack humans. Tonight on Biggest & Baddest, join biologist Niall McCann as he heads to the Northern Territory in Australia in search of the largest reptile on earth: the saltwater crocodile. Here’s an excerpt from Niall’s field journal from his expedition to find the Biggest & Baddest Man-Eating Tiger.

Most young boys with a keen interest in the natural world probably fantasize about catching crocodiles one day, I know I certainly did! The first time I ever caught a crocodile of any form was when I was 21 years old and on an expedition to study giant otters in Bolivia. We had spotted the eye shine of some small spectacled caiman out in a shallow eddy on the Rio Paragua near Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, and I waded out to see how close I could get. I approached the nearest caiman, dazzling it with the beam of my head torch. I plucked it from the water, all two feet of it, and grinned ecstatically at catching my first ever crocodilian. Fast forward nine years and the crocodile I was preparing to catch was a different prospect altogether: its head was two feet long!

I was in the Northern Territories of Australia with Charlie Manolis, chief scientist at Crocodylus Park in Darwin, the most published crocodile scientist in the world, and a total legend. To assist in Charlie’s research, we were hoping to catch a big saltwater crocodile on the Mary River, where these remarkable animals congregate in densities not seen anywhere else on earth. It was easy to see why so many crocodiles would gather here, the river was teeming with fish and the banks of the river were full of wallabies. There were also a lot of fishermen and recreational river users. And where people and crocodiles coexist, there are going to be problems.

In Australia, approximately one person is killed by crocodiles every year, compared to around 20 that die from horse riding accidents. The difference is that crocodiles will actively hunt people, and that is an intimidating thought for most people! Saltwater crocodiles are among the most dangerous animals on earth: they grow to enormous sizes and are remarkably well-adapted ambush predators. Their teeth aren’t designed to cut, they’re designed to puncture and hold on. Charlie’s research aims to better understand the biology of the crocodiles not only because this is interesting in itself, but to reduce the conflict between people and this great nemesis.

Finally, after 8 hours of trying, we had a crocodile on the line. I hadn’t really gauged how big it was when we first approached it because I was concentrating hard on holding on to Charlie’s colleague Brett, whose job it was to place a small barb into the thick skin on the crocodile’s neck so that we could reel it in using a rope attached to the barb. Earlier in the day Brett had fallen over the side of the boat right next to a huge crocodile, so I was determined not to let him fall in again! Brett had skilfully attached the barb and the crocodile had done what they always do when they feel threatened: it had dived to the bottom of the river to sit it out. Now all we had to do was reel it in.

I slowly pulled on the rope and felt the boat moving beneath me. I wasn’t reeling the crocodile in to us, I was reeling us in to the crocodile! The angle of the rope entering the water got steeper and steeper until we were directly above the crocodile, which was invisible beneath the opaque surface of the water. I hauled harder, trying to pull the crocodile to the surface, and the boat tipped at an alarming angle. Charlie stood on the far side of the boat to help counter-balance it as Brett helped me pull. Suddenly we felt the rope slacken slightly, and then a shape appeared and the crocodile’s head emerged out of the murky water; two feet long, and two feet from my face! I was transported back to that night in Bolivia, nine years earlier, holding that little baby caiman and grinning from ear to ear, and I grinned again! “That’s it Niall,” I heard Charlie say: “Easy does it, just pull it a bit further out of the water… Just don’t let the rope wrap around your fingers, if the croc takes off it’ll take you with it!”

To see more from Niall’s expedition, tune in to Biggest & Baddest: Monster Croc tonight at 8/7c.