"Welcome to school".
These are the words that usually strike fear and loathing into anyone who has been or is still going to school. With memories of homework, exams and teachers with nicknames such as 'the freak' or 'the psycho professor', is it any wonder that no one really wants to be at school? But not this time; this was a different type of school.
Five eager and excited students stood in front of their teacher, ready to get into whatever came their way.
Steve Irwin - The Teacher in
Lakefield National Park
"Welcome to school… welcome to CROC SCHOOL! I am your teacher and this,"Steve said, turning and pointing to the large lagoon behind him in Lakefield National Park, "this is your class room". These were the first words that Steve Irwin, The Crocodile Hunter, said to Kelsey Mostyn, Toby Millyard, Stuart Gudgeon, Brett Mostyn and Paul O'Callaghan. It is easy to see why these students were all so excited.
This was the first day of an amazing 15 day period of catching crocodiles and learning for 16 of the Australia Zoo staff. It was never intended to be that big a trip but as you will see, things got mighty exciting along the way and what started as a small teaching trip, turned into a major adventure full of big crocs.
Dr Mark Read checks out a radio
transmitter before it is attached.
Stuart helping on the end of a croc.
For Stuart Gudgeon, his time in Lakefield had started a week earlier when he had travelled to the park with Queensland Parks and Wildlife Crocodile Manager Mark Read, Craig Franklin from the University of Queensland and Frank Seabacher from Sydney University. This first week for Stuart was spent catching Freshwater Crocodiles (Crocodylus jonstonii) in a place called Harry's Hole along Rocky Creek. These Freshwater Crocodiles are caught using a gill net, similar to that which is used to capture fish. The crocodiles swim into the net and get their jaws tangled. The animals are then hauled up, removed from the net, measured and weighed before being released. On this trip, several of the animals were kept and had instruments attached to their bodies that would measure how long they spend underwater and how their bodies work in a typical day.
Close-up of a radio transmitter on the back of a croc.
Toby, Kelsey, Brett and Paul all drove up from Australia Zoo in two separate vehicles. This is a 24-hour drive so there were lots of driver swaps along the way. There was only two days to get settled before Steve arrived and these were spent setting up two floating traps and positioning them in two waterholes called Seven Mile and Kalpower. None of us really knew what to expect but already were buzzing about the fantastic scenery, wildlife and waterholes in Lakefield. What an amazing part of the world.
Large termite mounds scattered all over Lakefield.
A typical Lakefield sunset - hard to get used to...
Although we did some hard work over these days, little did we know that this was the calm before the storm!
Steve arrived on the 16th about mid-afternoon and we all sat down to discuss what the plans were for the trip. Discussions with Mark Read soon developed a plan of attack. Simple. Catch as many Saltwater Crocodiles as possible and put radio transmitters on them. With night approaching, you would think it would be a case of starting in the morning… not a chance with Steve as the teacher.
LESSON 1. There's no sitting down till the job's done.
Twenty minutes later and with all the equipment organised at home base, off we all went to check out the waterholes and the positioning of the unbaited traps. We returned some time after dark, ready for bed.
LESSON 2: If you want to catch crocs, you have to give them what they love to eat.
In the north of Australia where crocs live, there is one food source that they love above all others - PIG! Feral pigs are widespread over much of Australia and appear in huge numbers around wetlands, waterholes and billabongs where crocs live and feed. Mark arranged the local rangers to collect a couple of pigs. 5:00am the next morning, Steve had everyone up and moving. It was an hour's drive from the base camp to the waterholes and today more than any other day, there was work to do.
The results of feeding crocs what they love to eat.
The crew had never set soft mesh traps to capture crocs before and so there was a lot to learn. Steve is very skilled at setting this type of trap. His years of trapping the animals by himself have made him the master of understanding how the animal works and what it finds attractive. After a quick instruction, he broke the crew into groups and gave each the task of setting traps along Kalpower Waterhole. This waterhole had been selected for trapping first as there was a large male that Mark wanted trapped who had started spending time around campers. Time for the next lesson.
Steve Irwin; the master at catching
crocs with soft mesh traps.
LESSON 3: If you're going to catch crocs, you have to think like them.
Steve went with each crew along the waterhole to search for suitable sites to set the traps. He looked for signs of croc activity and where there was none, he ventured into areas that he thought crocs would be. This skill is something that must be learnt and comes from hundreds and hundreds of hours of watching crocs in the wild. Steve saw signs that the rest of us simply overlooked. What a great way to learn about crocs, their habits and the best way to capture them. By 9:00 pm that night, five soft mesh traps and two floating traps were set and baited with fresh pig along the waterhole.
Steve checks out his students' work
with a soft mesh trap.
After an exhausting day, everyone returned home looking forward to some dinner and a bed, any bed. Steve seemed to have as much energy at the end of the day as when he started, and said "Time to rise in the morning is… 2:30am. Sleep well!" No one said a thing but the looks said it all. OH MY GOSH! Guess that's the next lesson.
LESSON 4: If you're going to catch crocs you have to live like them.
The alarms go off at 2:30am and blurry-eyed scholars wander about trying to get organised for the day. Breakfast, packed lunch, shoes, water, knife, etc. Hard to get going when you can't think straight, after only three to four hours sleep in a strange place. Most had found a bunk to put their swags on the night before while Paul found the broom closet offered him most comfort… strange boy. "Lets move!" shouted Steve as he started his vehicle.
The best part of getting up early - a great sunrise
over Seven Mile Waterhole.
No one really questioned why we were up so early but Steve explained along the way. Night time is croc time. This is when they are most active, move the greatest distances and are more likely to feed. With dawn, any animals that are caught in traps are more likely to make a concerted effort to escape, so checking the traps and securing any with animals in them before first light prevents possible escapes. We jumped in the boats and sped along the waterway, lights shining on the river. The boats slowed as we approached each trap and anticipation turned to disappointment as each trap was found to be empty.
Steve launching the floating trap into Seven Mile.
Back to camp and time to have a better look at Seven Mile Waterhole. A floating trap was already set there but was not baited. Steve selected a site and the trap was baited. Maybe this waterhole would be productive, and with the bait being used starting to go off and smell, we were sure that any crocs in the area would know that dinner was on offer.
A welcome sight for tired eyes - a croc in the trap.
The next morning we were all up at 2:30am again and on the road by 3:00am. Hopes were high again, after all, this was day three. Steve set off with Stuart to check the traps at Kalpower while the rest of the crew waited at the vehicles. On their return to the vehicles we heard the news we had been waiting for. "We got one!" You could almost hear the hearts racing as we quickly drove to Seven Mile to check the floating trap there. Lights shone on it, the door was down. Strike two! You little beauty! Steve secured the trap and then it was time to wait for the sun to come up, organise for the extraction and Lesson 5.
LESSON 5: There is one team leader and everyone else follows their instructions.
Steve shows how it's done as team leader.
It was quickly decided, given its smaller size, to tackle the croc in the trap at Kalpower Waterhole first. Steve quickly reminded everyone of the dangers in removing a crocodile from a trap. No one else in the team had done it before so Steve took on the role of team leader (and of course, no one was going to argue). Steve quickly made it clear to everyone what it means to be a team leader. The team leader assesses the situation, delegates the tasks to the other team members and oversees the whole operation from start to finish. All sounds simple except for one thing… the croc is not told the rules and only has escape on its mind; around you, through you or over you! It doesn't care.
Only one way out of the trap - through the front.
The first capture getting held down.
A light moment as things fall into place with Mark,
Toby, Stuart, Brett, Paul and Kelsey.
Everyone was given their tasks and we set to work. A plan was devised. Steve was to attach two top jaw ropes and then the animal was going to be pulled out of the cage. When it was clear of the cage and death-rolled, one of the ropes hopefully would cover the jaws so that the team leader could jump on the head. At this time, we all had to follow fast to jump on and secure the animal so it couldn't roll. Stuart was to stay on the head rope to control the roll. The jaws were to be secured, then, once the team leader was happy, the animal was to be measured and a transmitter attached. Then the animal could be let go. Simple!
Kalpower with his head covered and
as the transmitter
is attached with Kelsey watching.
A tense moment for everyone. How did
you lose your shirt, Toby? And on the first capture!
The cage door was opened and the only thing standing between the croc and freedom was Steve. The animal bucked about but two ropes were attached. From there everything went like clock work and one 8 foot male croc named Kalpower disappeared into Kalpower Waterhole with a radio transmitter attached. There were a few tense moments during the process but given how tired everyone was, it all went pretty well and was completed by 9:00am.
Before the crew could let their heartbeats fall and recoup energy, we were off again. There was still a croc in a trap that needed to be removed.
Into the boats, along the waterhole, to the vehicles and on the road. It was becoming clear that there was going to be no down-time on this trip and the only food or drink we were going to get was on the run.
As we got to the croc in the trap at Seven Mile, Steve announced that given what he had seen, he believed that we were all ready to take on the role as team leader, and we would all be given that role over the next few days. Steve's words seemed to echo. "Toby, this croc is yours and I'm just watching. Away you go." Wow! The look on Toby's face said it all.
Kelsey secures the jaws while Paul backs
Toby - We're all good friends.
Steve keeps a close eye on
Toby's first croc capture.
Toby in charge on the head.
Away he went getting everything organised, nervous excitement all over his face and in his movements. Steve stood back and watched, pretending not to be involved but overseeing everything to make sure no one was going to be put in harm's way. Everything went like clockwork and about an hour after starting, 9 1/2 foot croc named 'Xena' was back in the drink with a transmitter attached. Handshakes all around and Toby was no longer a "croc novice."
Time to sit down? I don't think so. Remember Lesson 1? Well, the crew sure did. "OK," Steve shouted, "Let's get all the soft mesh traps down from Kalpower and move them over to Seven Mile, and let's get the floating trap over here as well. We want them all set up before we go home." Don't ya hate Lesson 1?
Kelsey and Brett pretending to work on the tail end.
About 10:00 pm that night, five exhausted trainee croc hunters stumbled into camp to grab a shower, a bite to eat and a couple of hours sleep. The broom closet felt like a 5-star hotel room!
Xena gets a helping hand back to the water.
Steve gives a hand with the release of Xena.
Steve gave us an extra hour's sleep the next morning, so we were up at 3:30am. Steve himself is like a machine when he gets in the bush and starts on a mission. He had already been up for an hour before the rest of us rose. We drove to Seven Mile and started checking the traps. The first floating trap we came to had its gate down… Strike three! The trap was secured and we continued. The next two traps were empty but as we approached the forth trap, a soft mesh trap set beside a well-worn mud slide, we could see the weight bags were down and the trap had been sprung. We couldn't believe our eyes as we came over the top bank. Curled up inside the trap was a monster and he was not happy. The trainees could not believe the growling and hissing that was coming out of this croc's mouth. As he heard us coming, this big dinosaur let loose with a thrash that took our breath away. Unbelievable energy being released. One blow from that head, teeth or no teeth, would almost certainly mean smashed bones and a trip to the hospital. Woo! We all stood back catching flies with open mouths. Well, not quite all of us.
Steve with Seven - What a huge croc.
Steve leaped into action and quickly secured the trap entrance so that the animal could not escape. No one other than Steve had ever had to extract an animal from a soft mesh trap before, so it was time for Lesson 6.
LESSON 6: When dealing with crocs in soft mesh traps, patience is everything.
To secure the croc's top jaw, Steve had to weave rope between the animal's teeth, back and forth through the mesh trap until the rope was secure on the top jaw and another loop was secured around the animal's entire jaw. This took about an hour and Steve showed great patience and stealth working within a few centimetres of the huge head and teeth.
Steve weaves rope to secure Seven's jaws.
Once the jaw was secure, the animal in the net was dragged up the bank and secured to a tree while we waited for reinforcements to arrive. This all sounds easy but in reality it was one of the hardest three-hour periods any of us worked on the whole trip. To tell the truth, we were exhausted. Steve measured the crocodile he had named Seven. 14 1/2 feet and probably 400 to 500kg of hefty crocodile. No wonder we were tired. At one point, this animal had dragged three of the crew twenty metre before it was pulled up. Five minutes break and we were off again. "Stuey, you're up!" Steve shouted.
After three hours of hard work, and with Seven secured
in the shade, the team takes time out to pose.
Stuart's animal was in a floating trap and it was bigger than the one for which Toby had been team leader. Starting to feel more comfortable with what we were doing, we were all given our roles and away we went. About 30 minutes later, a 10 foot female crocodile named Leia was released. Steve again just stayed to the side, ready to jump in if things went pear-shaped. So far, so good. No reason for the teacher to rescue the students ! The traps were reset and, given that more manpower was required and would only arrive the next day, Steve decided to leave Seven until the next morning. To protect him from other animals, Steve would stay with him on the bank that night. The rest of the crew headed off to camp on dusk. Tomorrow was going to be another long day and there was Seven to look after.
Stuart, Toby and Mark work on Leia.
When we arrived at Steve's camp the next morning he was wide-eyed and buzzing. He had not slept, and for good reason. A croc as big as Seven had been lurking all night close to the bank. Everyone could see the excitement in Steve's eyes. Two big crocs in one small bit of water was not common. There were no crocs caught in any of the traps so we decided to do the measuring of Seven and put a transmitter on him.
Holding Seven while the net was removed from around him.
It took a united effort to move Seven
to the water for release.
Help arrived in the form of National Parks rangers and some staff from the Department of Natural Resources and the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service. All in all, there were 12 people there to help hold down Seven while he was processed and released. Seems like a lot of people for one animal, but every one of those people were needed. There is no way to describe the strength of a large crocodile until you see it lifting and moving 10 grown humans around.
Steve leaps into action to make sure the ropes are secure.
Steve assessing the situation before release.
Steve in a dangerous place -
between the croc and the water
The next day when we found a 15 foot crocodile in a floating trap, Steve knew we were experiencing something awesome and unique. Time to get serious! Steve could see that this whole experience needed to be shared with others at Australia Zoo and what's more, he needed to rotate staff to keep everyone fresh. A quick call to Australia Zoo and new staff were on their way. Kelsey, like Toby and Stuart, had her turn as leader in extracting a croc from a trap and excelled at this task. She named her 10 foot female croc 'Trinity.' This animal had a tag that was placed between her toes in the 1970s which made her a very old animal.
One huge croc! 15 foot of muscle and teeth
The scholars with Trinity - Kelsey's first croc.
Steve with Campeze - Wooo-Hoo!
The King of Seven Mile.
Steve named the 15 foot croc 'Campeze' and, given the size of this animal and how few staff were available, the decision was made to just measure him and let him go. But not before he gave us all an awesome demonstration of his power. What an awesome animal! We all agreed that he was probably the King of the Waterhole!
Mark and Steve pose with one of the
biggest crocs you will ever see.
With the arrival of Brian Coulter and Trevor Neucom at Lakefield, Kelsey, Brett, Stuart and Toby departed. A day later, Kisha, Jai, Tiffany, and Mick all arrived. A fresh crew for Croc School! They didn't have long to wait for action either.
After changing trap sites and setting up new sites, the new crew was rewarded on their first night with a huge croc that was named 'Muscles'… and muscle he was. The night before he was captured, this animal walked 63 metres up a steep bank and over land to find a whole dead feral pig and dragged it back into the water through thick under story. Now that's power!
''Muscles', being a male of 14 feet 8 inches, gave all the new crew a taste of croc power that left everyone buzzing. There is nothing like feeling the power of these amazing animals.
Spike in the floating trap.
Over the next two days, two more animals were caught. A little boy named Spike who only measured 5 feet 8 inches, and a female of 9 1/2 feet named Magenta.
Kisha and Jai secure Spike while
Mark attaches a transmitter.
Spike was a little cutie and a great size for Kisha and Jai to handle themselves while Mark did all the measuring. This was a great experience for both of them, as neither had experienced the opportunity to be that close to crocodiles before. Magenta showed just how every crocodile has a different personality and taught everyone the next lesson. Being removed from the trap and handled to have the transmitter put on her, she hardly made a movement or sound. Steve basically jumped on her himself. Paul was given the job of coordinating the release and it all went really well. However, at the point of release when Paul hopped off her head, Magenta exploded with a head swing that would have broken a bone.
Magenta was so quiet Steve handled her himself.
It must be love! Magenta and Steve.
Paul and Mark cut the last rope while Steve
and Bindi look on for Magenta's release.
Magenta explodes on release.
LESSON 7: Never let your guard down, not even for a second.
What a great lesson Magenta taught everyone.
With two days to go before the end of the training camp, Steve rotated teams again. Kisha, Tiffany, Paul and Jai all headed home and were replaced by Brendan, Richard, Frank, Leanne and Kate. These guys joined with Brian, Trevor and Mick for the final training session.
Over the next two days they reset soft mesh traps and moved floating traps. On the first day a 10 foot female named Mrs. Growley was caught. Then to everyone's surprise, the big 15 foot male, Campeze was recaptured in a floating trap at the other end of the water hole. This time the decision was made to put a transmitter on him, not only to give all the new staff experience handling a big croc, but also to give us some information on what these big blokes get up to. Boy, did he put on a show. He truly is the king of Seven Mile.
After Campeze, time had run out and it was time for everyone to pack up camp and head home. What an amazing experience for all 16 Australia Zoo staff involved. The experience of being taught about crocodiles in the bush by Steve Irwin, a world authority on Saltwater Crocodiles, is an experience that no one involved will ever forget. The feeling of closeness to the animals and admiration will last a life time. These truly are magnificent animals who warrant our respect and protection.
Pure Power - 15 foot of airborne croc.
Leanne helps Steve secure Campeze's jaws.
Look out, world; there are now another 16 Crocodile Hunters who graduated from Croc School in July 2003. In LakeField National Park, crocs certainly Rule!