Birthday celebrations turned to tragedy on August 24 when a young man was attacked by a crocodile in Australia’s Northern Territory. 26-year-old Sean Cole was swimming with a friend in the Mary River, 65 miles southeast of Darwin, when horrified onlookers saw him snapped up in the jaws of a large saltwater crocodile, before disappearing from sight.
Following a major search in which at least four crocs were shot and killed by rangers, Cole’s body was recovered in the early hours of August 26.
Cole, an IT worker originally from Katherine, NT, had already swum across the muddy river and was returning to the camp ground where he and more than a dozen others were enjoying a 30th birthday party when guests saw a crocodile “explode from the water” and grab him. One member of the group ran to a nearby restaurant and called emergency services.
Late into the night shots were being fired as police and crocodile experts tried to make the area safe for searchers. One of the crocodiles killed – a 4.8 meter-long monster – is believed to be the animal which attacked Mr. Cole.
The Mary River is well-known for its saltwater crocs, and clear signage warns visitors not to go within five meters of the water at any time. Authorities – and other campers – have asked why anyone would venture into the river when so many crocodiles had been sighted nearby, although it is believed that alcohol played a part in Sean Cole’s tragic decision.
Saltwater crocs are the largest of all reptiles and, arguably, the most dangerous animal in the world. The Mary River has a greater concentration of full-grown adults than anywhere else, with many exceeding three meters in length. A few behemoths have grown to almost seven meters. The animal was once hunted for its hide and, prior to becoming a protected species in 1971, was threatened with extinction in the area. Numbers have rebounded since then, however, and crocodile expert Dr. Graham Webb estimates that there are about 20 times as many crocodiles in the Northern Territory as there were in 1971.
Attacks have been quite common in the “Top End” in recent years. In December of 2012, a four-meter croc killed a nine-year-old boy at a beach, and two weeks before that, a 14-year-old boy was taken while swimming at a waterhole. According to the NT News, there have been 18 confirmed fatal attacks since 1971, with 11 of those occurring since 2002. Although there is a popular belief that tourists are those most at risk, the statistics show clearly that it is Territorians who are ignoring the warnings: 15 of the 18 victims were locals.
Authorities have refused to change their conservationist stance in light of this latest tragedy. The NT government has ruled out any chance of a cull, saying that there had never been an attack in this part of the river before, and that if people follow the well-publicized safety advice, there shouldn’t be a problem.
As heartless as it must sound to the family of a young man who has died in an unimaginably horrible way, responsibility for the tragic death of Sean Cole rests ultimately with the victim. Graham Webb says that swimming in a croc-infested river is like having a picnic in the middle of a major highway. “There is a lot of education and planning here; it’s as professional as you’ll get anywhere in the world,” he told Guardian Australia.
A full report on Cole’s death is being prepared for the coroner. It is likely that the word “alcohol”, a factor in about half of all Australian crocodile fatalities, will feature prominently.