THE CALL CAME OUT OF THE BLUE. A BBC friend wondered if I fancied producing a film about Ben Fogle diving with crocodiles in Botswana’s Okavango swamp.
I had always dreamed of going to the Okavango, and had admired the presenter for his acts of derring-do.
But saying yes to the job would make me responsible on location for the safety of a team diving with one of the world’s deadliest reptiles, the Nile crocodile.
It was a daunting prospect!
Over the past 14 years I’ve made many wildlife films about man’s relationship with predators, including man-eating tigers in Bangladesh, lions in Kenya and great white sharks in Australia. Being a Dive Master with an HSE qualification in Professional Scuba has proved useful on many film shoots including Ocean Giants, Africa’s Great Rift and Oceans. But diving with crocodiles – was it even possible
My curiosity and inability to turn down a challenging adventure got the better of me, and I accepted.

ACCIDENTAL CROC-DIVERS
The first people to dive with wild Nile crocodiles were cameraman Brad Bestelink and his wife Andy Crawford, wildlife film-makers based in Botswana.
Both experienced divers, they were getting some scenic underwater shots for a film about the Okavango in a place they had thought was “crocodile-free”.
“We were buddy-diving, and the croc actually came out of a cave between us,” Brad told me. “But the nice thing was that it wasn’t running away, it wasn’t going for us – it was quite comfortable to settle next to us.
“We spent 40 minutes with that croc. It was one of the greatest dives we’ve ever done, and really made us think that diving with crocodiles was do-able”.
Brad and Andy started diving more regularly with wild crocs, and were amazed to find that they didn’t seem predatory. It opened up a unique opportunity to film and photograph them closer than ever before.
Crocodiles have roamed the earth for more than 100 million years, yet their lives remain a mystery, because they spend around 80% of them submerged.
Excited about their unique access and the potential for studying crocodiles under water, Brad and Andy invited scientist Adam Britton to the Okavango to conduct a pilot study.
Adam, a British zoologist who has worked with crocs for more than 15 years, feels strongly that they have suffered from a bad press.
“People misinterpret crocodiles; they misunderstand them,” he says. “They’re not as bad as people think they are, in terms of what motivates them to attack.
“This doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous – clearly they are, and many hundreds of people get attacked by crocodiles every year.”
But Adam believes that to help reduce attacks we need a better understanding of crocodile behaviour. He was eager to study “where” Nile crocs hide and “how” they detect their prey under water.
Ben Fogle was invited to join the diving team and report on this pioneering research, which was recently televised in the BBC2 documentary Swimming with Crocodiles.
Nile crocs can grow as long as 6m, although most males are 4-5m and females about 2m. There are about 3000 in the part of the Okavango called the Panhandle, where Brad and Andy dive.
From the mid-20th century, crocs were hunted for their skins, and their population took a nose-dive.
Now protected in Botswana, their numbers are growing, and with more people relying on the Okavango Delta for their livelihoods, attacks are inevitably on the rise. To prevent such attacks, it has become even more critical to understand crocodile behaviour.
Diving with crocodiles should be attempted only by a highly experienced team and with strict safety measures in place. We thought it was possible only because of Brad and Andy’s track record of diving with crocodiles without incident, their strict diving protocol and their knowledge of crocs and the area.

THE RULES
I had to write a 20-page risk assessment for the BBC and our insurers, detailing the hazards and precautions we would be taking on location.
These included having a paramedic on hand, divers carrying wrought-iron spikes for protection, and following Brad and Andy’s protocol rigorously.
They attempt to dive with crocodiles only during the Botswanan winter months. From early June to the end of July, the water temperature in the Okavango Panhandle is at its coldest.
Crocodiles are cold-blooded reptiles, and the cool water helps to make them less active and less hungry (although some have still been known to have an appetite). The water is also clearer, so you are less likely to bump into a croc unexpectedly.
Brad and Andy have discovered that crocodiles have individual personalities. They would never dive with a particularly bold croc that appeared to be unafraid of people.
As they explore the river channels by boat, they often see the crocodiles basking on the bank, and “choose” the one with which they think it is safe.
Crocodiles are most likely to attack at the water’s surface, an area known as the “kill zone”. So Brad and Andy’s method of diving reduces surface activity.
They perform a backward roll off the boat for a negative entry (no air in the BCs) and get deep quickly.
Under water, it is critical to stay close to the riverbed. Dive above a crocodile, and it could see you as prey.
You need to move slowly and calmly under water, staying out of striking range of a crocodile’s head, because it could knock you out cold.
“At all times you need to know that there is actually a very real danger,” Andy advised our dive team. “Often you don’t see the crocs, but they’re there.
“The thing to be aware of is not to panic. Always remain extremely calm. Remember that activity on the surface is the big no-no – it’s the one thing we try to avoid at all times.”

THE RISKS
Brad and Andy have logged several hundred dives in the Okavango swamps without incident. But with two young children, it’s surprising that they’re willing to take the risk. “We have families and it’s terrifying, but we feel it’s safe for us to do,” says Andy.
“We just wouldn’t willy-nilly throw ourselves into a dangerous situation.
“I think the chance of an attack could come from a defensive strike from a crocodile, if by mistake you get washed onto it, if you’re not managing to hold yourself in the current.
“If by mistake you get too close to it, or if we’re not careful in looking where we’re going and we swim into one, the crocodile could snap.”
Excellent diving skills are clearly extremely important. Our dive team was given the appropriate training, and we conducted a series of test dives before any croc dives were attempted.
In June and July, water temperature in the Okavango can range from 10-15°C, requiring a thick wetsuit and hood. The diving wasn’t deep – generally 5-15m – but it was the currents and crocs that made it challenging!
Ben Fogle was unsurprisingly very nervous, and eager to know what he should do if attacked by a crocodile.
Brad had this advice: “If you can hurt it somehow, eyes and neck are soft spots for them – some say even pushing your hand down its throat.
“If it feels like it’s going to get damaged it’s going to release. It’s not going to risk its life to try to get some food. It’s going to back off if it gets hit.”

TOO-CLOSE ENCOUNTER
On our filming trip we did have one croc encounter that was way too close for comfort. The team had been travelling by boat, scouting the channels for a suitable croc with which to dive.
After seeing one disappear under water, they dived into the swamp according to the drill.
Brad and renowned wildlife cameraman Mike Pitts went to look for the croc halfway up a slope under an overhang of vegetation. It was its usual bolthole, but the croc could not be seen.
What the team didn’t realise was that it was “behind them”, maybe wondering what they were doing in front of its cave!
Andy was the first to spot the 3m animal. It was lying dangerously close to Adam and Mike, who were oblivious to its presence. She at once pushed Adam away from the reptile with her croc spike.
“Holy xxxx!” said the croc expert later. “I don’t know how close he was but I could see his ears and teeth clearly.
“You realise for the first time that you are actually in the crocodile’s environment, not in your own.”
Seconds later, Mike turned to get a shot and was surprised to see the croc only a metre away from him.
“It was the largest croc I’ve seen,” he later wrote in his logbook. “I instinctively pulled the camera around to protect myself as self-preservation kicked in.
“The croc bit the buoyancy floats around the dome and then bit again at the lamp. In doing this, the current forced me above the croc and I pushed the camera down again, keeping it between me and the beast. It then suddenly swam off.”
Luckily no one was hurt, although the divers were shaken up by the experience.
But after lengthy discussions, the dive team agreed that this was a very unusual occurrence that they didn’t think would happen again. They believed the attack wasn’t predatory but defensive.
The sudden movement of the camera and lights probably startled the croc.
The team decided they were happy with the safety measures in place, but made a few changes to streamline diving protocol and speed up entry into the water.
That crocodile was avoided on future dives. It had become overly curious about the divers, and unusually bold.
Following the attack, Ben Fogle was extremely anxious about getting in the water with a croc: “I do completely trust Andy and Brad. But it doesn’t make me any less nervous. I’m pooing myself, is the only way to describe it!”
When Ben got his chance to dive and study a crocodile’s behaviour under water, he admitted that it was the most extraordinary experience of his life: “That was the scariest thing I’ve had to do, without question,” he said. “But it’s also one of the most fulfilling.
“I’m really proud that I was able to overcome my fears, and those fears were based on prejudices that I had about crocs. Those fears ingrained in all of us that crocs equal death.
“I hope I’m getting a small insight into a misunderstood creature.”

OVER TO YOU
The team’s pilot study proved a success, and opened the door to a revolutionary new way of researching wild crocodiles.
Under the right circumstances crocodiles can be studied without fear of an attack, and we now have a better understanding of how good their vision is under water, and where they hide.
The team discovered that crocodiles avoid fast-flowing currents, making these areas safer for local people.
They also learned that if you do encounter a crocodile in the water and can’t get away, diving to the bottom might be the safest thing to do.
Diving with crocodiles is becoming the new “shark-diving” experience. An increasing number of adventurous divers are heading to Botswana to dive with and photograph crocodiles close-up.
If croc-diving is on your “bucket list”, do it only with hugely experienced guides such as Brad and Andy so that it’s as safe as possible.

TOP CROC FACTS!
* Nile crocs can grow up to 6m long and weigh as much as a small truck (almost a tonne).
* Some are reputed to live to be 100 years old.
* Full-grown crocs have the strongest bite of any living animal on Earth.
* Nile crocs are opportunistic predators. They’ll eat anything from fish to small hippos, wildebeest – and people.
* They have a constant supply of razor-sharp teeth. Each tooth is replaced every few months when young, and at least once a year when older.
* Crocodiles are air-breathers like us. They can slow their heart down to just a few beats an hour, which helps them stay under water for more than an hour at a time.
* Crocs usually walk under water rather than swim – a clever way to conserve energy.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Flights to Maun in Botswana, then a four-hour drive to Nxamaseri, or a one-hour flight to a local airstrip.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Brad and Andy can offer a tailor-made dive package which includes staying at the Nxamaseri Island Lodge, located on an island in the Okavango Panhandle, www.nxamaseri.com
WHEN TO GO: Eight weeks from early June to end of July for crocodile diving, though the lodge is open year-round..
PRICES: Pro film-makers and photographers pay around £450 a day to croc-dive, andy@naturalhistoryfilmunit.com
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.botswanatourism.co.bw