Sunshine Coast Birds

Birding and other wildlife experiences from the Sunshine Coast and elsewhere in Australia - and from overseas - with scribblings about travel, environmental issues, kayaking, hiking and camping.

Friday, 10 May 2013

In Search of the Mary River Saltwater Crocodile, by Kayak



Mary River saltwater crocodile - Picture by Qld Department of  Environment & Heritage Protection
Apex predators – lions, bears, sharks, that sort of thing – have long fascinated me. Australia’s apex predator is the saltwater or estuarine crocodile, so when one turned up in the neighbourhood, the opportunity to try to see it was sorely tempting.

The saltwater crocodile is a tropical species that is rarely encountered even at the southern end of its eastern Australian range – Rockhampton in Queensland. So it was highly unusual for a 3.5-metre crocodile to take up residence in the Mary River, 350 kilometres south of Rockhampton and on the cusp of the state’s heavily populated south-east corner.  The crocodile has been there for at least 13 months, defying all attempts to remove it.

Mary River saltwater crocodile - Picture by Lindsay Titmarsh
My dilemma in wanting to see the animal was that I would need to take to the river in my kayak, a humble vessel a bit over 2 metres – well short of the size of my target. Was it safe to go chasing a large crocodile in a kayak?  Most crocodile victims in Australia were swimming, snorkelling, fishing or wading through water when they were attacked. However, a man was killed by a crocodile in 2005 on Cape York – see here for further details - after his canoe was overturned by the animal, so I was mindful of a degree of risk.

Kayaks and canoes are very easily overturned.  A kayak is roughly the same shape as a crocodile, so it might be regarded as competition by a territorial male.  A kayak might bump into an animal resting in the murky shallows, prompting an angry response. Large crocodiles often prey on mammals, so a tasty morsel perched atop a flimsy piece of plastic 15 centimetres above the water surface might be of some appeal.

A saltwater crocodile shot at Tiaro, 30km upstream from Maryborough, in 1964
The skin of the Tiaro crocodile minus tail in the Bauple museum
There was much to contemplate, but I simply could not resist. I had to try to at least see the crocodile, and hopefully photograph it. I had seen plenty of wild saltwater crocodiles previously in north Queensland and the Northern Territory, but to spot one so close to home, and so out of range, would be what we wildlife enthusiasts refer to as a megatick.

The Mary River animal turned up at Beaver Rock, a popular boat ramp 15 kilometres downstream from the busy regional centre of Maryborough, in April last year. It is Queensland Government policy to remove any crocodile found south of the Boyne River at Gladstone, so the Mary River beast has for the past 13 months defied numerous attempts by wildlife rangers to trap it. It has shown no interest whatsoever in the wild pig carcasses left in traps as lures.

Head of the Mary River saltwater crocodile - Picture by Lindsay Titmarsh
When the crocodile was first seen, authorities did not believe it would hang around for the relatively cold south-east Queensland winter, but it did. Even extensive flooding in the Mary River earlier this year failed to move it. All sightings of the crocodile since it arrived have been within a 12-kilometre stretch of river.

Shortly before my kayaking foray, I learned from local Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection rangers that it had recently been spotted on the southern bank of the Mary River opposite Brothers Island, 3 kilometres upstream from where it was first seen at Beaver Rock. The animal was sunning itself at low tide at a site where it had been spotted several times. On this and other occasions when the crocodile was encountered, it slid from the muddy bank into the river as soon as it became aware of human interlopers.

Mary River crocodile - picture by Qld Department of Environment & Heritage Protection
Several friends, including one or two who know a few things about crocodiles, tried to talk me out of the idea. I was advised to at least not be alone, or to hire a motorised dinghy, a sturdier vessel.

I decided to proceed with my plan after careful consideration. The time of year – the end of April – was after the crocodile breeding season so there was little reason to worry about territorial aggression.  The crocodile had been ignoring baits so it was presumably feeding well on the abundance of barramundi and other food in the river; it was evidently not hungry. Significantly, the animal gave every indication that it was shy of people and keen to avoid them. Problem crocodiles elsewhere exhibit quite different behaviour.

Foot imprint in mud of Mary River crocodile - Picture by Lindsay Titmarsh
There was something more to my decision - the buzz, the adrenalin. The stuff you get from abseiling down cliff faces or parachuting out of planes; an element of risk.  Kayaking excursions are conducted in St Lucia, South Africa, in waters infested with crocodiles and hippos.  I’d read exhilarating accounts of experiences from people who had taken the ride. I was also aware of less alluring yarns from Africa.  In 2010, Ugandan tour guide Hendrik Coetzee was dragged from his kayak by a crocodile and killed (see here for story).

Mary River upstream from Beaver Rock boat ramp
I decided to paddle the 3 kilometres from the Beaver Rock boat ramp on the southern bank of the Mary River to where the crocodile was last seen opposite Brothers Island. I intended to be there at low tide in the hope it would be sunning itself on a river bank. From the ramp, the enormous size of the Mary River was apparent; it seemed a very long way across to the northern bank.

Fishing trawler destroyed in 2013 Mary River flooding
The day of my little adventure began with one of those sunny, warm south-east Queensland autumn early mornings, with a nip of winter in the air. From the boat ramp I could see a large fishing trawler on its side in the mud on the river bank – a victim of the recent floods. On the bank at the top of the ramp is a fresh sign planted by the wildlife authorities   a gentle reminder, it read:  “Crocodiles inhabit this area. Attacks may cause injury or death.”  I was able to make good time paddling upriver, easily recognising the spot from photographs where the crocodile had been seen.  

Newly planted sign at Beaver Rock
I decided it would be prudent to paddle as close to shore as possible as the water was shallow and if necessary in the event of an attack, I could scramble up the river bank to safety. This may have been wishful thinking. Typically, when a crocodile launches an attack on a victim on or close to land, it lunges at great speed, propelling itself from deeper water. This is what happened to naturalist Val Plumwood during a 1985 attack in the Northern Territory. Plumwood was in a canoe at the time -  see here  for her own extraordinary account of what happened.

Me in the kayak
I could see no sign of the Mary River beast on the exposed river bank. I paddled around a large bend in the river, impressed by extensive stands of large mangrove.  I was paddling close to the bank, with Brothers Island perhaps 200 metres away across a deep channel. Eventually I was in a stretch of river under cover of mangroves overhanging the water, and I was negotiating my kayak through a maze of dead trees.

Then I saw the crocodile. About 15 metres away, I spotted the unmistakeable nostrils and snout of a large crocodile just above the water surface before the head of the animal slowly submerged. The crocodile had evidently been on the river bank and slipped into the water when it saw or heard me approach. It had then taken a look at the cause of the disturbance. This behaviour mirrored that witnessed by others who had seen the crocodile.

The spot where I saw the crocodile
I confess to a panic attack, as the animal was very close. I got out of the kayak and dragged it up on to the mud. I hauled myself up the river bank as fast as I could, but the mud was thigh-deep. It was very slow going, and exhausting. I looked constantly behind me, not knowing quite what to expect. However, if the crocodile had wanted to grab me, it had plenty of time to do so. The head was pointing upriver when I saw it and not towards me, so I believe it was intending to get as far away from me as it could.

Nonetheless, just to be sure, I waited an hour on the elevated river bank – there was no further sign of the animal - before returning to the kayak and paddling back to Beaver Rock against the incoming tide. My vessel and I were thoroughly covered with mud.

So how unusual is the occurrence of a saltwater crocodile so far south of its normal range? Not as unusual as we may think. In 1964, a 3.4-metre crocodile was shot at Tiaro, in the Mary River 30 kilometres upstream from Maryborough. Its hide is on display today in the museum in the quaint township of Bauple. A large crocodile was shot in 1905 near Logan Village, 300 kilometres south of Maryborough.


Kauri Creek - one of several local sites where crocodiles have been spotted
The tidal waters and mangrove swamps of the Mary River-Fraser Island- Great Sandy Strait-Tin Can Bay region appear well-suited to the saurians.  In recent years there have been what appear to be well-founded sightings from several spots including Deep Creek, Fig Treek Creek and Bridge Creek along the western shores of Fraser Island.
Animals have been reported from Dundowran Beach near Hervey Bay, on an island in Kauri Creek, on Woody Island in Hervey Bay, in Saltwater Creek (a Mary River tributary a few kilometres downstream from Maryborough) and even at Queens Park in the heart of Maryborough. Others were reportedly seen in creeks north of Point Vernon and in the Burrum River. 

The crocodile shot in the Logan River in 1905 - will this be the fate of the Mary River croc? 
Fishermen in earlier times regularly reported crocodiles in the Mary River. The crocodile presently in residence roams between Beaver Rock and a stretch of river near Maryborough Airport, close to the town centre. It appears to prefer two areas 7 kilometres apart – the vicinity of Brothers Island and upstream in the above-mentioned Salwater Creek. This week, the crocodile returned from Brothers Island to Saltwater Creek.

Three baited traps set at different times and places are ignored by the crocodile, which seemingly is perfectly happy in its new environment.  The authorities may feel forced to take more drastic action to remove it. The  Liberal-National Party Government in Queensland has indicated through various measures that wildlife conservation is not a high priority, so the days of the Mary River crocodile are likely to be numbered.

I would like to thank the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection and Mary River land owner Lindsay Titmarsh for their help in putting together this material.

 















 
 







3 comments:

  1. A great read! Thanks for sharing!

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  2. Hi Greg , Butch has agreed to be the guest speaker at our AGM ( WBBEC) and i hope to organise a mary croccins symposium , to discuss the ecological implications of having this apex predator in the Great Sandy Biosphere and ramsar, cheers roger

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