IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE JUST ANOTHER pleasure dive to observe some of the small creatures of the mangroves. I was absorbed by a tiny crustacean on a patch of anemone.
My concentration was broken by a strange muffled sound. Chus Barrientos, my friend and diving buddy, was shouting through his regulator. I looked up to see him finning furiously backwards.
On the surface, perhaps 6m away and just 1m above me, was a saltwater crocodile. It was swimming fast, roughly in my direction.
I froze, and held my breath, hoping that if I didnt blow bubbles or stir the water, it might not notice me. It passed. Then its head suddenly swung sharply to the right and it dived towards me.
It was April 2009, and Chus and I had joined 15 other divers on the Ondina, a traditional wooden schooner, to dive Raja Ampat, the heart of the Coral Triangle that spans Indonesia and its neighbours. Many of our companions were photographers. I had chosen to leave my bulky underwater housing at home to simply enjoy the diving.
Starting from Sorong, in Indonesias West Papua province, on the fifth day we reached the Blue Water Mangroves off the coast of Nampale island. Labyrinthine narrow channels of shallow clear water between the mangrove forests form a beautiful, though eerie, habitat.
Corals grow on red roots. Archerfish prey on insects and small lizards close to the surface by shooting them down with water droplets. Anemone patches are home to minute crabs and shrimps.
THIS SITE WAS SHALLOW, AND SOME of the photographers wanted to spread out, so we broke into small groups.
Chus and I teamed up with one of the local dive guides, an enthusiastic spotter who would frequently dart towards an interesting fish or a promising coral when they attracted his attention. We followed him around the mangroves as he pointed out the archerfish, colourful nudibranchs and minute crustaceans.
At some points we were so shallow that our tanks bobbed at the surface. Often my nose was mere centimetres from whatever I was looking at.
I remained in general proximity to the others, occasionally taking note of where the guide was, and the next area for me to investigate.
Chus noticed the dive guide briskly swimming away into deeper water.
I thought hed found something and was going after it, he later told me. Then I saw that he was pointing away to the right.
This was when I heard his shout.
Within five seconds of seeing the crocodile, I was struck. Springing back, I narrowly avoided having my skull crushed by its jaws.
Its claws tore the mask from my face and the regulator from my mouth so violently that my chin was lacerated and part of one incisor broken off.
Only the thin neoprene of my wetsuit stopped my torso being shredded.
The crocodile snapped again. The jaws locked on my right arm and I was pulled down. Everything became a blur, but it was obvious that the crocodile was trying to drown me. I could feel its massive strength, yet there was no pain.
Fortunately, I wore my octopus on a bungee cord around my neck. Technical divers believe this makes it possible to grab it quickly with ones mouth in an emergency, and thats what I did, and was able to continue breathing.
A regulator stowed in a BC pocket may have been impossible to reach.
OBSERVING FROM A DISTANCE, the guide saw the crocodile sinking backwards, swinging its head right and left, making a couple of spins on the way and shaking me like a puppet. It locked its tail on the bottom and waited.
Chus was closer, just a few metres away. You and the crocodile were vertical in the water column, he told me. My attacker was huge. Its head alone, from the back of the neck to the tip of the snout, was about 80cm. Based on that measurement, Dr Grahame Webb, director of Wildlife Management International (WMI) near Darwin, Australia, and a renowned crocodile expert, later estimated that the animal was a 4 to 4.5m adult male.
A crocodile of this size is likely to weigh more than 500kg.
Approaching us from the side, Chus first attempted to prise the animals muzzle open by pulling at the rubbery flesh under its lower jaw.
He then moved behind the animal: It had a hard scaly back, he said.
It felt like a tree trunk.
Reaching over, he plunged his middle and ring fingers into one of the reptiles eye sockets. It was very hard.
His nails remained black and bruised for weeks afterwards.
When this did not appear to make a difference, he retreated to join the guide on the surface. He remembered seeing harpoons on the Ondina, and he hoped these could be used to fight the crocodile. In the frenzy and without my mask, I couldnt see any of this. I was unaware that he had tried to help me.
As they were shouting for help, the guide handed Chus his small knife.
With its 5cm blade it was practically useless, but Chus tried to go back down.
In his agitated state he lost his regulator and started choking. He quickly came back up.
A few hundred metres away, Alexander Safonov and his younger brother Alexey had completed their dive and were picked up by a dinghy. They saw splashes in the distance and quickly arrived at the scene, to find Chus and the guide at the surface.
Ive been diving for many years but this is the first time I saw real panic on divers faces, panic that was totally out of control, Alexander told me.
The brothers couldnt see the crocodile, but soon realised that a third diver, still under water, was involved in a serious accident.
The guide jumped straight into the dinghy. He shot out of the water like a rocket, obviously in a state of shock, said Alexander.
Chus, still in the water, was very distressed. Alexey leaned over and tried to look through his mask. He couldnt see anything. He was still wearing his equipment and wanted to go down at once, but his brother stopped him.
There was no harpoon on the dinghy. Chus had a knife in his hand,said Alexander. He was trying to give it to us. I took the knife from Chus but I didnt pass it to Alexey. I threw it on the bottom of the dinghy.
Any rescue attempt seemed both futile and reckless. When I saw the faces of Chus and the dive guide,
I thought something irreparable had happened. I was so scared. I have never seen anything like this in my life.
Alexey remained on the surface, next to the boat.
Down below, I was in a state of shocked disbelief. The prospect of encountering a crocodile in the water, let alone being attacked by one, hadnt occurred to me. The sight of these terrifying jaws lunging at me felt almost unreal. I quickly snapped out of it. The shock was replaced by a powerful sensation of heightened awareness and clarity. There was no panic.
After about 40 seconds, the crocodile suddenly let go of my right forearm and bit on my left hand, pulling me along the sloping bottom to a depth of 10m.
Because my right arm was covered in neoprene and I was also able to breathe without struggling, the crocodile may have been uncertain as to what it first
bit into. But as I was not wearing gloves, the exposed flesh of my left hand was now bleeding.
Until then, my thoughts had been to hold on as best I could until help arrived. I was relieved that I had secured the octopus and could continue breathing. I tried to keep calm to slow down my air consumption, but knew that an hour into the dive the supply would not last long.
It soon dawned that no park rangers equipped and trained to wrest victims from the jaws of crocodiles were rushing to help me. There would be little the other divers, guides or dinghy drivers could do. With a sense of mounting dread, I knew that I was on my own and would have to fight for my life.
At first I used the injured right arm to try to prise the jaws open, in a bid to free the left hand. It was futile; they were clamped shut.
I then stabbed my index and middle fingers into the crocodiles eye. To my surprise, there was no resistance. It felt soft, as if I had plunged them into a bowl of jelly. It was probably the same eye that Chus had injured earlier.
I dug in ferociously. I remember this going on for a while before the crocodile abruptly released my hand, and swam away. This meal was proving too much trouble. I didnt wait for it to change its mind, and shot straight up.
When you surfaced by yourself, it was like a miracle, said Safonov. The speed of the ascent caused my computer to chime in protest. You were bleeding, you were very pale and without a mask.
I hurriedly released my weightbelt.
Chus pulled me onto a second skiff that had turned up, and we left quickly.
The guide thought that the attack lasted between 10 and 20 minutes. According to my dive computer, exactly two minutes and 16 seconds passed from the moment I was pulled down to the moment I surfaced.
After the other dinghy left, Alexander Safonov saw the crocodile on the surface, a few metres away. His brother was still in the water on the other side of the boat. It was frantically swimming into the distance with its mouth open, he said. He had screamed for his brother to get back on to the boat. They then hurriedly collected the other divers still in the water.
I WAS WHISKED BACK TO THE ONDINA, carried into the wheelhouse and laid on the captains bunk. Within minutes the anchor was raised and the boat started steaming back to Sorong, the nearest town with even basic medical facilities. It was 16 hours away.
Using scissors, Chus quickly cut my wetsuit to free me. Dr Fernando Blanco, one of the passengers and a dentist, gave me an antibiotic to control the infection from the bites. The wide laceration on my chin from the crocodiles first attack exposed the fatty tissue underneath but was only a superficial cut. My right forearm had deep puncture wounds.
My left hand was mangled with multiple bite wounds. A long gash snaked around the wrist, ending 3cm from the radial artery.
The thin 3mm material of my wetsuit had protected me from more serious injuries on my arm and torso that would have led to significant blood loss, in turn agitating the crocodile further.
Assisted by Chus, Blanco applied a single suture to each wound before bandaging me. Without anaesthetic, this was very uncomfortable.
Some time after he finished, I started feeling chills, and my teeth began to chatter. I told Blanco I was going into shock. Tightly wrapped in blankets, the sensation soon passed.
That evening, as I was lying in the wheelhouse, the guide came to see me. He spoke no English, but there was no need for words. The anguish and horror on his face were plain enough.
There was little he could have done for me under water, and we both knew he could well have been killed had he tried.
Medical facilities in Sorong were very basic, and we flew to Singapore the next day. Forty-eight hours after the attack, I was finally wheeled into an operating theatre at Mount Elizabeth Hospital.
I underwent three additional surgeries before being discharged, almost three weeks later.
Crocodile attacks on divers appear to be very rare. I came across only two reported incidents, both in Australia and both involving commercial divers. One incident was fatal.
Dr Mark Erdmann, co-ordinator for Conservation Internationals programme in Raja Ampat, told me that the estuarine crocodile is legally protected in Indonesia.
Unfortunately, protected species which cause direct injury or otherwise harm humans or their belongings are rarely truly protected.
Killing a dangerous croc, tiger, elephant or even an orang-utan that raids gardens is generally accepted - not officially, but tacitly.
Certainly within Papua, if a crocodile threatens, kills or injures a community-member or an employee of a coastal-based business, it will generally be hunted and exterminated.
Erdmann believes that saltwater crocodiles have been largely extirpated from much of the Indonesian archipelago. As human populations expand, crocodile populations contract. This is caused both by the hunting of the crocodiles and the conversion of their nesting and feeding habitats to human uses.
Your story has given me more than a few nightmares, he said. Ive spent probably well over 30 hours snorkelling deep in the mangrove roots of Nampale by myself, on the naive assumption that the crocs there were long ago killed off, as I was told by fishermen.
Your story is a potent reminder of how mobile these large predators are, and that even if an area is thought to
be cleared of crocs, a large adult could always swim in from far away.
AS THE FIRST DIVER TO DISCOVER the Blue Water Mangroves site, Edi Frommenwiler is the silverback of Raja Ampat diving.
In 1992 he began exploring the west coast of Papua when the rainy season prevented his liveaboard, the Pindito, from operating in the south-eastern parts of Indonesia it normally sailed.
On that trip or a little later, he came across an unusual mangrove site, north-west of Nampale Island. Normally when you go diving in mangroves you have brown-greenish water, bad visibility. Its always in a bay without current, he told me in his friendly Swiss-German accent.
Whats special about this place is the blue water. You have current, you have soft coral, you have shallow water and you have beautiful mangroves.
Frommenwiler had never seen a crocodile at the site. In more than 8000 dives in eastern Indonesia he recalled seeing a crocodile only twice, both times from the surface. I know there are many crocodiles on these islands, but normally theyre in quiet bays that dont have big current, he told me.
I didnt remember feeling a strong current on the day of my attack. Perhaps I picked a bad day to dive there.
Blue Water Mangroves attracts 30-45 divers every 10 days or so during the season. So why was I the first to be injured by a crocodile Could it be that I ran into one that had swum in from far away, as Erdmann speculated Or could it be because the currents that normally prevail on the site were absent that day, as Frommenwiler suggested
Listen, he concluded, I am very surprised that you found a croc there and very bad luck that you got bitten by one. Very bad luck. Sorry about that.
So am I, I smiled.
On the day I was attacked, 20 divers were in the water. Everyone was in the same area, on the same dive site, it could have happened to any one of us, said Alexander Safonov. I dont think in our group there were many people who would be able to deal with the situation like you did. I too was initially surprised by the calmness and determination with which I handled the attack. I would not have thought myself capable of it. However, I suspect that most people would also fight back. We share a primordial instinct for survival.
You dont expect to be mauled by a bear when you go hiking in Alaska, but it could happen. There will always be hazards in wild animal habitats.
This incident will not stop me diving, but I will steer clear of any mangroves, whether bluewater or murky.
THE FATE OF THE CROCODILE is less certain. Expert Dr Grahame Webb believes it will adapt to the loss of an eye. The incident was reported to local authorities, but Erdmann believes nothing will happen to it any time soon.
Almost two months after the incident, Chus and I were in Logroño, in Spains La Rioja province, to visit Fernando Blanco, the dentist who treated me onboard the Ondina.
That evening, his 49th birthday, the town was celebrating its annual fiesta.
We walked together down the crowded alleys in the old city centre, stopping to sample street-café tapas, downing little cañas of beer. We talked of diving adventures, these we had had, and these of which we dream.
A LUCKY ESCAPE
Four months before I was attacked, and unbeknown to me when I was diving, Lauren Greider, a former nurse from California, had been chased by a smaller, significantly less bulky crocodile at the same site.
She and her husband arrived on the liveaboard Cheng Ho in October 2008. Brad Greider skipped the dive, staying on the boat to fix his camera.
A strong current soon separated Lauren from the group, and the outgoing tide reduced visibility. Neither was a serious challenge. Many experienced underwater photographers like her prefer to dive alone. The most interesting subjects here are macro, so great visibility is not essential.
Lauren was stalking archerfish when she saw the crocodile heading straight for her. She quickly fired four shots with her camera, hoping that the flashes would deter it (one of the images is shown above), then swam as fast as she could. When she could no longer see the animal behind her, she came up.
She was alone in mid-channel - or almost alone.
The crocodile spotted and swam towards her.
Lauren did not want to submerge again. She feared a deep attack or a decompression incident. Instead, shielded behind her large housing and flashgun arms, she sounded her scuba alert. The crocodile bit her flashguns, but eventually a dinghy driver from the Cheng Ho heard her alarm and came to the rescue.
As his inflatable approached, the animal swam away.
This crocodile appears to be missing part of its right foreleg. Lauren reckons it measured 3-4m.
|A FORMIDABLE PREDATOR|
Crocodylus porosus, commonly known as the saltwater or estuarine crocodile, is considered the most aggressive and dangerous apex predator.
It is also the largest of all crocodilian species.
Opportunistic, it will attack any animal that strays, even water buffalo or domestic livestock that weigh a tonne or more. This territorial reptile is threatened only by humans or other crocodiles,
and juveniles forced to move elsewhere. It is capable of swimming hundreds, even thousands of miles in search of new habitats.
Powerful muscles are used to close the jaws with tremendous force. This crocodile has an average of 64 teeth, designed to grab and hold on to the quarry, pulling it down to drown it. Fast swimmers, most can remain under water for 15 minutes. Bigger animals can stay down for hours.
It tears apart larger prey that cant be swallowed whole by rolling its entire body and whipping its head in a manoeuvre aptly named the death roll.
Sensory organs in the skin around its jaws enables it to sense tiny pressure changes in the water, such as those caused by bubbles or divers moving below the surface.