Princess Charlotte Bay

 

Princess Charlotte Bay, August 2005

Princess Charlotte BayAugust 2005 was one of the best months of my life. We embarked on the greatest crocodile research project in history. Our mission was to study the diving patterns of adult Saltwater Crocodiles in the Bizant and North Kennedy Rivers, which are two of the major systems feeding Princess Charlotte Bay. Princess Charlotte Bay was first sighted in 1815 by Lieutenant Charles Jeffreys of the British Royal Navy. He named this beautiful bay after the daughter of George IV, Princess Charlotte.

I find it a total blow-out that in this day and age, no one has worked out how to record crocodile diving patterns. Since Australia Zoo was founded way back in 1970, we have been using anecdotal stories and our own personal observations to explain to patrons and tourists how these ancient reptiles dive, how long they can hold their breath and at what depth. Now we have the facts!

Our cherished mate and Australia's (if not the world’s) leading crocodile biologist, Professor Craig Franklin figured out the best possible scientific hardware to successfully record dive time and depth of wild adult Saltwater Crocodiles. Then all we had to do was retrieve the information without loss of human life or limb. What an epic mission.


Stuart (Australia Zoo’s Construction Manager and Crocodile Logistics) and Trevor (Australia Zoo’s Chief Engineer) took two months to put together the logistics of the mission’s ground support. Here are six fully laden Australia Zoo Landcruisers in the Cape and just itching to catch crocs.   A very, very proud day for me. Croc One, my brand new crocodile research boat on her first big croc mission. Crikey! Won’t she come in handy.
Stuart (Australia Zoo’s Construction Manager and Crocodile Logistics) and Trevor (Australia Zoo’s Chief Engineer) took two months to put together the logistics of the mission’s ground support. Here are six fully laden Australia Zoo Landcruisers in the Cape and just itching to catch crocs   A very, very proud day for me. Croc One, my brand new crocodile research boat on her first big croc mission. Crikey! Won’t she come in handy


Our Princess Charlotte Bay Crocodile Mission August 2005 had been planned for over 12 months, and during the two months leading up to our expedition start date, August 1st, we were going flat out like lizards drinking. This was our toughest crocodile research expedition so far. Australia Zoo had to deploy Croc One, her crew and 20 tonnes of gear; six Landcruisers packed chock-a-block, with roof racks full and all towing boats and trailers; 20 hardcore on-the-ground Australia Zoo Croc Crew; several tonnes of trapping equipment and camping gear; over 20 skilled personnel working on logistics (not in the field) and a handful of rangers from QPWS, what an almighty force.

This research project is a beautiful collaboration with Australia Zoo, the University of Queensland and the Queensland Environmental Protection Authority all coming together for the common goal of crocodilian conservation and management. The data and knowledge we gain from this and ongoing projects like our famous Crocs in Space project have and will continue to produce much needed facts to better understand and manage the world’s greatest reptilian predators, the crocodilians.

Our target is to capture the largest species of all the crocodilians - the Saltwater Crocodiles, Crocodylus porosus - nicknamed salties! During twenty days of intensive trapping from the 1st to the 20th of August, we successfully captured 28 beautiful adult salties from the two Bizant and Kennedy Rivers. We caught 22 males and six females.

We captured 22 male crocodiles, 15 of those were over 4 metres like this big bloke we named ‘Stonker’. He’s over 4.1 metres and loaded with personality.   sn’t she gorgeous? This is ‘Emma’, a beautiful female. We only captured six girls, which were a very refreshing change from the hardcore, hard-hitting boys. She’s beautiful.
We captured 22 male crocodiles, 15 of those were over 4 metres like this big bloke we named ‘Stonker’. He’s over 4.0 metres and loaded with personality   Isn’t she gorgeous? This is ‘Emma’, a beautiful female. We only captured six girls, which were a very refreshing change from the hardcore, hard-hitting boys. She’s beautiful


Crocodiles are the same as us humans with their unique personalities and individual looks and appearances. From a distance or from just a cursory look, crocodiles all look very similar, but when you catch and restrain them it gets very personal. My hands-on/people power restraining techniques are the best in the world; they allow us to be extremely fast and efficient, which places very little stress on each animal. During the capture, restraint and release we can see the obvious characteristics of each and every crocodile. They are all so completely different – some short, some long, dark, light, grumpy, passive etc. They’re so uniquely different in their dinosaur-like ways.

Here are some shots of the crocs we caught; I find it fascinating how they are as different as you and me, and they are undoubtedly the true heroes of our missions.

‘Max’ (4 metres) – ready for release
‘Max’ (4 metres) – ready for release

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I utilised three different trapping methods: soft mesh traps, gate traps and floating traps. The greatest testimony to my capture techniques is in the amount of recaptures we achieved to retrieve some of the scientific hardware. Crocodiles are very intelligent and instinctive, and have great memory capabilities. If something causes a crocodile stress it will avoid that cause of stress for the rest of its life. They remember spotlights and shooters for decades and will avoid them at all costs. To capture, release then recapture a crocodile demonstrates that my techniques are causing such a small amount of stress on an individual that within days, we were able to capture them again. If they were stressed, then they would actually fear the traps and never be caught by a trap again.

We had a total of six recaptures, which was absolutely sensational; it allowed us to retrieve some of the critically important hardware and demonstrate the effectiveness of my three trapping methods.

Professor Franklin is very happy with the attachment of Scar’s precious hardware. Thank you Ian and Amanda for your help!
Professor Franklin is very happy with the attachment of 'Scar’s' precious hardware. Thank you Ian and Amanda for your help!

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After Professor Craig Franklin, Dr Mark Read and I examined the recaptures, we quickly came to some fascinating conclusions. The amount of damage male crocodiles do to each other during their conflicts – tails partially bitten off, toes, feet and legs ripped off, nuchal shields smashed and noses scarred up or removed altogether – is brutal, painful and stressful. We feel that capturing them, laying on them for 15 minutes then releasing them is like giving them a hug in comparison to the mauling and injury that occurs when Saltwater Crocodiles fight.

Have a look at the more common injuries they inflict on each other.

More often than not, males over 4 metres have parts of their tails bitten off.
More often than not, males over 4 metres have parts of their tails bitten off

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Capturing such a large number of crocs in such a concise amount of time has taken me nearly 30 years of intensive self-training, constant innovation and infinite tweaking of cutting-edge techniques. Way back in the 1970s, Dad and I were competing against the legal and illegal trades in dead crocodile body parts and skins. We worked to exhaustion endeavouring to trap crocs so that they weren’t shot dead. During the 1980s I spent years in mangroves and swamps on the greatest learning curve of my life; it was in the early eighties that I became the man I am today. Through the 1990s and the subsequent success of Australia Zoo, I captured crocodiles with my drop-dead gorgeous wife, Terri, my best mate Wes and occasionally Brian and Toby from the Zoo croc staff.

Nowadays, it is all about the TEAM. A continued successful career in TV and cinema and the astounding growth of Australia Zoo has been instrumental in our crocodile conservation level going through the roof. In 2003 on Cape York’s Nesbit River, we were lucky enough to afford three 4WDs, three dinghies, six croc crew and a chopper for our croc research projects. At the time I couldn’t believe how far I’d come since catching crocs with my dad in the seventies.

Now look at us! International Crocodile Rescue operates six 4WDs, six dinghies, a 75-foot purpose-built crocodile research boat, choppers and more croc crew than you can poke a stick at. We’ve come a long way fast, and it’s all for the incredibly important role of conservation. We eat, sleep and breathe crocodilian conservation.

It’s undoubtedly the TEAM that is the astounding component of today’s crocodile projects. The University of Queensland, Environmental Protection Authority and Australia Zoo are an incredibly powerful team of experts coming together for the common goal of conservation. The Australia Zoo Croc Team is easily the best the world has ever seen, and when we're in the field working together it’s only the impossible that takes a little longer for us to achieve. Every single player in the Croc Team and behind the scenes is passionate and dedicated to the cause. The good old days were fantastic with just me and my little dog ripping around the rivers and estuaries catching crocs on my own, but in this day and age it’s the teamwork of our multi-skilled individual players that enables us to conduct such immense, world-changing projects. Each and every individual contributes in one way or another, and after each capture we share the most amazing emotional high that peaks when that croc is released and initially hits the water. The overwhelming feeling of changing the world for the better brings tears to your eyes at each and every release.

There’s no doubt that together we – the team – work extremely hard, but by jingo the pay off is sweet.

Constantly up to their armpits in mud, the team helps out another croc trapped in a floater.
Constantly up to their armpits in mud, the team hauls out another croc trapped in a floater

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I reckon four of the most important team players were Dad, Terri, Bindi and Bob… my little family. What was so special about this mission was having my family together doing what Irwins have traditionally done for over 35 years. We were honoured to have my dad up there sharing his wealth of knowledge, looking out for the kids and keeping me out of trouble. Dad and I have always worked incredibly well together; I was extremely lucky to have him and Mum nurturing my instincts and skills when I was an up-and-coming young bloke. Bindi, Bob and the Croc Team were blessed to have him up there teaching and guiding them through the intricacies of the job. It made my life so much easier and helped to mould both the kids’ and the team’s passionate personalities and expand their skill base. Here are some of the funniest and some of the most intense family moments.

Three generations of Crocodile Hunters: Dad, me and Bindi with Bindi’s first adult saltie - she’s caught in a trap

Three generations of Crocodile Hunters: Dad, me and Bindi with Bindi’s first adult saltie - she’s caught in a trap

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Princess Charlotte Bay August 2005 goes down in crocodilian conservation history as the most successful crocodile research mission ever, because of the knowledge we gained together.

Professor Craig Franklin reports:
The challenge with our research on the diving behaviour of large Estuarine Crocodiles was that the dive recorders we were attaching to the crocs stored all the information in memory on the device. What this meant to us is that we needed to get the dive recorders back! Typically with this type of field study you would expect a success rate of less than 50% (meaning at best you would get back half of the devices deployed). We deployed 14 devices, and incredibly we got nine dive recorders back.  This is a real testament to the dedication and expertise of the Australia Zoo Croc Team, which is undoubtedly the best in the world in setting challenging goals and achieving such great success in a remote field location.

Each of the dive recorders can store over 500,000 data points – so it is going to be a lengthy process to analyse all of this incredible dive data, which will reveal for the first time the diving behaviours and abilities of large Estuarine Crocodiles. What we do know from first glance at the data from the dive recorders is that some of the crocs are diving for longer than two hours (on a single breath!), and we have crocs diving as deep as 14 metres (50 feet). It seems clear that Estuarine Crocodiles are going to be classified as the masters of submergence and will hold the record for longest dive on a single breath.

Thank you Craig, and we’ll be excited to watch your data reveal the true diving nature of these giant reptiles. I’d also like to thank everyone who helped with this ongoing mission, particularly our good mate and crocodile colleague Dr. Mark Read. This research wouldn’t have been possible without the tireless support from Mark and Queensland’s top Park Rangers- Barry, Scott, Cameron, Andrew and their families - thanks fellas.

 

Steve and Bindi

Apex predators worldwide need OUR help. 16 of the 22 species of crocodilian are being skinned to death – and are now endangered; over 100 million sharks are being finned alive – now endangered; big cats are being turned into fur coats, aphrodisiacs and trophies – now critically endangered. These animals are at the top of the food chain and as they’re driven closer and closer to extinction, every single living thing in this world will be adversely affected – even us.

Every single person can make a difference by simply not purchasing any wildlife products, no matter how they are marketed. Next time you see someone wearing croc skin boots or a fur coat, think to yourself, “Hmmm… that skin sure would look better on the animal who owns it.”

Our Princess Charlotte Bay August 2005 Crocodile Research Project goes down in history as a turning point for the way we view Australia's huge Saltwater Crocodiles. Every year we will continue to commit Australia Zoo's resources to Crocodile research and crocodilian management.

WE LOVE EM!