Crocodiles – we are simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by them. But love them or loathe them, they’re an integral part of life in the Northern Territory. SUE PRESTON investigates.
IF YOU thought you had a risky job, spare a thought for the people who dangle buffalo meat from the side of the boat to entice crocodiles to leap vertically out of the water.
“There’s a nice bit of belly dancing,” our guide croons as a giant croc leaps up, landing with a resounding flash of the tail that sends a wave of water washing over the boat.
Taking tourists to see crocodiles in their natural habitat is big business in the Northern Territory. Even those who profess to hate crocodiles know the powerful and magnetic pull of the world’s largest reptile.
Wildlife guides understand this ambivalence only too well. While making sure their guests are safe at all times, they like to cheekily keep up a steady banter as the boat noses close to the three- and four-metre long man-eaters.
“See, one eye’s open – he’s window shopping - sizing up the different steaks on board.” And, “Here’s another one, folks, he’s come in to check out the floating Bain Marie”.
On our hour-long Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruise on the Adelaide River, there’s plenty of time to learn some interesting facts about the crocodiles we’ve come to see. No longer hunted for their skins, their numbers are thought to be anywhere from 75,000 to 100,000.
Crocs are attracted to bright colours - the pinks, yellows and reds (one brightly-clothed passenger swapped seats when she heard that).
- They react 37 times faster than a human. Who worked that out?
- They live on a healthy diet of barramundi, mud crabs, stingray and the occasional wallaby.
- They must keep their head above the surface when swallowing.
- They have growth rings in their bones, similar to a tree trunk.
- They have remarkable powers of recovery and when injured they lie up on the banks until they heal.
- Their teeth are replenished throughout their lifetime.
Young crocs have only a 1 per cent survival rate. At 15cm (about the size of a household gecko) they come out of the egg snapping but fall prey to predators including bull sharks and large barramundi. Even Mum will eat them if they overstay their welcome in the nest.
The popular Jumping Crocodile Cruises offer an opportunity to learn about estuarine (saltwater) and freshwater crocodiles – their biology, territorial habits and their value to the eco system – while enjoying an entertaining hour on the water in small open-sided boats.
The guides use a wooden pole to which a chuck of buffalo meat is attached, slapping the water gently to send out vibrations, which attracts the crocodiles.
“We aren’t teasing them, nor do we want them to rely on us as a food source,” our guide said. “They know the sound of our boat and our voices and we are careful not to feed the same croc every day.”
Jumping clear out of the water is a natural, not a learned, behaviour, we are assured.
Crocs generally lead a solitary life and have clearly marked territories. In fact, during our cruise when one started losing interest in the meat, it was because the boat was drifting into another croc’s territory and he was becoming more cautious.
Interactions with other crocodiles are invariably fierce affairs. We meet Stumpy, the oldest croc in the river, who is missing two and a half limbs because of skirmishes. The guides, who know every croc on this stretch of the river and have accorded them names, say Stumpy loves coming out to have his photo taken.
That may be true but he also doesn’t want to let that buffalo meat get away. The snap of Stumpy’s jaws as he grabs the meat drowns out the click of the cameras.
If you go...
SPECTACULAR Jumping Crocodile Cruises is on the Arnhem Highway at Humpty Doo, an hour’s drive from Darwin. There are four cruises daily – $40 for seniors.
- Phone (08) 8978-9077, www.jumpingcrocodile.com.au
FOR information about holidaying in the Northern Territory, www.northernterritory.com
* Sue Preston was a guest of Tourism NT.