Hypercarnivorous apex predator. The three most chilling words in the English language.
“This is what we do if we get attacked. You go for the eyes, or if you’re caught in its mouth, you need to reach to the back and past the tongue. There’s a flap there which stops water flooding their lungs.” Tom was concerned, but not about being bitten.
I had spent hours researching saltwater crocodile attacks ahead of our Borneo trip. I had read reports of fishermen in capsized boats being dragged into the water, women who were stolen from riverbanks as they washed their clothes, and swimmers who had disappeared without even a ripple. I had consulted WikiHow about how to survive an attack, and delved deep into the archives of crocodile-related deaths.
As I read our itinerary on the Kinabatangan River, my blood cooled.
Crocodilians can attack at any time, but are most active and most dangerous at dusk and at night. The Sukau Lodge where we were staying was built on the banks of the river. We would be taking boat tours along the river at dusk, along with an optional night cruise.
Crocodiles, in particular, are also known to attack and overturn boats, and will even grab people off of boats and drag them into the water. I flicked through the tour images on the site and was surprised to see how small the boats were. They had motors but were barely above the water’s surface.
Avoid patches of vegetation where these animals could hide. Our guide would steer our boat right into a floating carpet of salvenia molesta aquatic weed where it was rumoured a 5m male crocodile lived. This was also a popular place for females to lay their eggs.
Large crocodilians can launch themselves through the water at speeds of up to 60kmh (37mph), faster than most people can react. As we made our way to the lodge, the engines were cut as we drifted past a 3m crocodile. It was sunbathing on the shore, open-mouthed. We were easily within 10m of it. It banged each leg in turn, twitched its tail, then suddenly snapped its head towards us and launched into the water. Our captain rushed to kick start the motors as we lost track of it immediately in the murky brown water.
Cruising along the Kinabatangan River, we spotted four adult crocodiles. One of the guests in the boat was an American woman who had done this tour ten times. She lived in Kota Kinabalu but was a wildlife enthusiast and a professional underwater photographer. She said that she’d never seen so many crocs in all her previous trips. She had attended a wildlife conservation conference where she had chatted with a crocodilian expert. According to him, the water temperatures dictate whether the eggs will produce male or female crocodiles. As water temperatures continue to rise, more males are likely to be born. The males are more territorial and aggressive, and can grow up to 2m larger than the females.
Our guide told us that the river can sometimes swell up to 5-6m higher, and the water reaches 2-3km beyond the usual banks. When this happens, more humans are attacked as workers in the plantations do not expect to see a crocodile there. Down the river towards Sarawak, it was reported that the firemen are being trained how to hunt crocodiles following a spate of attacks. As the macaque monkey populations are smaller there, the crocodiles have less food to snatch from the overhanging branches and are forced to hunt other prey.
Tom might have been right. I was getting a bit obsessed. After all, saltwater crocodiles were only one of the Big Borneo 5 – we were there to see the orangutans, proboscis monkeys, rhinoceros hornbills and the pygmy elephants too.
During the night cruise, the strong torch positioned at the back of the boat swung across the treeline, illuminating the greenery in the darkness. The chocolate-coloured water was now inky black. The light hovered across the still water and our eyes followed it with trepidation. The guide was searching for the telltale shine of crocodile eyes. Just as he was about to abandon it and return to the sleeping kingfishers or proboscis monkeys, we caught a glimpse of two gooey gold eyes. The set of eyes silently glided past our boat, the rest of it submerged and unseen. The eyes were close together, meaning it was a young crocodile. We saw three baby crocodiles, then a larger one about a metre long who menacingly kept his mouth wide open as the waves from our boat washed over him. He was showing off his teeth and stayed still as we passed. He was on the muddy bank next to our lodge opposite the jetty, reminding us that the danger was close by.
The next morning, our guide Stephen was keen to get out on the water at 5:40am and beat the other boats. He had a knack for finding the biggest salties as they cruised in the water before the whirring of the motors caused them to move away. True to his word, we encountered a huge 3m crocodile swimming alongside our boat. His skin was much darker than others we’d seen, and his body slinked on top of the water before disappearing altogether. Time was suspended as we nervously scanned the surface. He emerged on the other side of us briefly, then I was glad when Stephen spotted him upriver, far from our boat.
On our final river cruise, we went down a new tributary that was only slightly narrower than the main Kinabatangan. Large cables ran across the river, connecting two large trees on either side. Our guide explained that these were built by the WWF to allow orangutans to cross safely, as crocodiles would hunt anything that had the misfortune of falling into the water. However, it was mainly the proboscis monkeys that made use of the bridge, according to our guide.
It was here that Stephen told us a story that I have not been able to verify online, and I’m not sure I completely buy it now. It is true that crocodile attacks do go unreported in remote areas, and equally, I understand why a story like this might be quashed. In a nature reserve that relies on tourism to maintain its conservation efforts, bad press could threaten their work. As the story goes, two European(?) tourists were staying at a nearby lodge, which was discernible only by the wooden hut and steep jetty. At around midday, they decided to go for a swim. They took off their hiking boots and clothes, and made their way down the muddy bank into the water. They both were taken by the crocodiles, and only one torso was recovered. Now, I appreciate this sounds like a story that you’d tell over a campfire, but in that moment, and having seen the large predators over the course of three days, I believed him.
Now that I have had time to absorb the sights and the whole experience, I feel slightly embarrassed by how scared I was each time I boarded the boat. Given the number of tourists that take these tours, and the fact that our guide Stephen was a grandfather, I should have been able to settle my nerves. With any wildlife spotting tour, you are lucky to be in an environment where wild sightings are possible. I felt the same way when I dived with sharks in Komodo National Park. Instead of my phobia bubbling over, I actually willed the black and white tipped reef sharks to appear from the blue and swim nearer to us. Next time, I’ll spend less time tormenting myself with click-bait reports and devote more time to finding out about the conservation efforts in place to protect these misunderstood species.
– How to Survive a Crocodile Attack, https://www.wikihow.com/Survive-an-Encounter-with-a-Crocodile-or-Alligator
– Saltwater Crocodiles, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saltwater_crocodile
– Temperature-dependent sex determination in the salt-water crocodile, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/296789610_Temperature-dependent_sex_determination_in_the_salt-water_crocodile_Crocodylus_porosus_Schneider
– Waterweed-eating Weevils, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/11/08/waterweedeating-weevils-to-be-set-loose-in-mid2018/
We travelled with Borneo Eco Tours and booked their BB7H experience, taking in the magnificent Sukau Rainforest Lodge (one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World) and Tabin Wildlife Reserve. Highly recommended and a wonderful wildlife spotting trip!