A crocodile researcher in northern Queensland says locals with fond memories of swimming in waterways free of crocodiles enjoyed an “unnatural time” that is unlikely to return.
- Crocodiles were almost hunted to extinction in Queensland
- A recent study shows that the number has been almost completely restored
- Authorities say it is now more important to make smart decisions about waterways than ever before
Estuarine crocodile stocks in the region were decimated by hunters in the 1950s and 60s, and in the mid-1980s you could even swim across the normally crocodile-infested Daintree River.
The most recent killing took place in the Daintree region in early 1986, after a woman named Beryl Wruck was killed by a suspected five-foot-long crocodile while swimming in Barrack Creek, a tributary of the Daintree River.
The fishermen and hunters apparently shot any crocodile that was spotted, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that a stack of dead crocodiles could be seen on any given day at the local landfill.
Local Paul Webster swam the banks of the Daintree River on a 1986 hike.
He said the river current was more dangerous than what could have been in the water that day – he was washed about a mile downstream.
“There was a whole bunch of us waiting at the ferry crossing and there was a crocodile warning sign that I said had to be removed because there were no crocodiles in there,” he said.
After agreeing on the terms of the bet – a carton of beer – Mr Webster swam over.
Times have changed
Department of Environment and Science Wildlife Program Coordinator Matt Brien described the population of crocodiles in Daintree as “healthy” and stressed that people had to make smart decisions when living near crocodiles.
“These days, you’re playing with your own life if you tried swimming Daintree,” said Dr. Brien.
Dr Brien led a study released earlier this year that showed crocodile populations had jumped back in distant northern Queensland, where nearly 30,000 of the animals lived relatively close to humans.
“People could swim in waterways back in the day without fear of a crocodile attack,” he said.
“But it was not a natural time – their numbers had been wiped out.”
“I wouldn’t even cross it on a kayak,” he said.
Models of restraint
Dr. Brien said crocodiles could easily attack humans more often than they did and were smarter than people thought.
“It’s not so much the number of attacks that happen, but the number of times crocodiles have the ability to attack humans but do not,” he said.
“So something’s happening there that makes crocodiles a little wary of humans – it’s probably a historical relationship with humans.”
He said that while crocodile attacks occurred – there were three attacks in Queensland this year with one death – for the most part, the victims put themselves in unnecessary danger.
‘A bit of stealth’
Webster said his 350-meter-long swim across the Daintree River in 1986 was not done with complete disregard for his life.
“I was not swimming on the surface, I was just wading very, very still in the water,” he said.
“I decided to swim on top of the water and splash around and sound like a drowning fish was probably not the smartest thing to do, so I did it with a bit of stealth.”
It took Mr. Webster three weeks to track down the person who was betting, but he claimed his carton of beer.