A hunk of red meat dangles jauntily from the end of a fishing rod, drops of blood glistening almost prettily in the hot Australian sun. One stoic, amber eye glints with raw menace from the massive head of an 18 foot (5.5 meter) crocodile, as he surveys the snack hanging in the air above him. I am less than 12 inches away from this scaly beast, a terrifying remnant from times prehistoric–untouched by evolution for millions of years because it simply didn’t have to change. This thing IS the top of the food chain.
Almost imperceptibly, the eyelid of this inexorable reptile flashes in a snake-like blink. My breathing is shallow, something swims past my leg–a leaf. I scream, jumpy from being in the water with something that could kill me instantaneously with its dozens of five inch teeth.
Why did I ever agree to do this? Why am I diving with a crocodile in “The Cage of Death?”
Pause, let’s back up. When Steve and I decided to come to Darwin, Australia to spend the holidays with Steve’s brother, little did I know that my life would be in danger. Steve’s brother Ian is a manager at Crocosaurus Cove, a reptile aquarium in downtown Darwin, and has always wanted to get Steve in a contraption called “The Cage of Death.” (Can’t you just feel the brotherly love!) Said death trap is a one inch thick cylindrical plexiglass container that lowers unwitting tourists into the tank of one of the park’s reptilian residents, for an up close and personal introduction.
“Has anyone ever died doing this?” I ask, eyebrows raised, as I literally sign my life away on one of those extreme sports liability forms–the kind that say things like, “This activity may cause injury or death.”
“The chains have only broken once,” I am told by a grinning Ian.
As we climb down the ladder into the tank, my heart pounds at the thought of the tank cracking, teeth flashing, death rolls like you see on National Geographic. It feels very similar to when I stood at the door of an airplane 18,000 feet above the earth and imagined my parachute not opening.
Machinery cranks into action and the cage is raised high above the tank of ‘Chopper,’ allegedly the third largest captive crocodile in the world.
The tank descends. Water begins to pour into small slits carved in the plexiglass. I think back to the instructions we received only moments ago. “Whatever you do, don’t put your fingers through the holes in the cage.” Yes, sir!
Chopper swims over from his perch on the sunny rock in the corner, curious about what’s for lunch. My breathing shallows. The tank stops. We are submerged up to our shoulders, so we can dive underwater, get a better glimpse of the creature. I knew crocodiles were massive, but seeing one this close up is mind boggling. This plexiglass better not shatter now–Chopper is only a few feet away.
Now, back to the dangling meat.
Ian splashes the bait in the water, right by Chopper’s eye.
Then CHOMP! A 1,700 pound (790 kilo) body of pure muscle propels itself out of the water in a terrifying rush of gnashing teeth, splashing water and twisting tail. His jaws brush the side of the tank, an inch from our petrified, screaming faces.
More meat is dangled, and another heart stopping chomp ensues: 34,000 pounds of pressure in one bite.
I duck behind Steve. When we said our goodbyes before we got in the tank, Steve agreed that if the tank cracked, he’ll distract Chopper while I swim to safety. How chivalrous! (Thanks, baby! But glad we didn’t have to put our plan into action.)
Just as suddenly as we were lowered, the tank begins to rise. I nearly choke as I simultaneously giggle with relief and exhale the breath I’d been holding the entire 15 minutes. The truth is, I had deliberated for days and weeks before about whether I was brave enough to do this crazy thing with Steve. Turns out, it was actually a thrilling experience , and we did indeed survive The Cage of Death.
*Note: I was ambiguous about participating in this experience, as I am generally opposed to zoos and aquariums and animals being held in captivity for the benefit of curious humans. But many of the animals in Croc Cove, Chopper for instance, would never survive in the wild, as he is missing his front legs and would have long ago perished in a survival-of-the-fittest kind of way. Also, after touring Crocosaurus Cove and seeing firsthand the care that this fine establishment takes of their menagerie, I felt that in this case the experience was morally acceptable.
YouTube video produced by Steven Moore
Photos courtesy of Jenna Natalizio from Outer Edge Photography