Of all the wild animals found in Australia, the crocodile is one of the most intimidating. Its scaly skin, reptilian eyes and sharp teeth make it look like an actual monster. The fact that they kill with a move called a "death roll" doesn't dissuade fear either. But with a little knowledge, you can avoid being croc bait. Illustration by Sam Woolley.
Crocodile attacks are relatively uncommon, with Australia averaging 2.3 attacks per year, of which only 0.6 were fatal. Similarly, alligator attacks aren't that common in the US, but most happen in Florida, where there are about a dozen attacks every year. In fact, Florida has over 330 recorded alligator attacks between 1948 and 2004, way more than any other US state. Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Louisiana have all had reported attacks as well, but their numbers pale in comparison (the closest is Texas with 15). Fortunately, like crocodiles, very few alligator attacks end up being fatal. And most fatal attacks involve the elderly, pets or small children, like the two-year-old boy that was tragically snatched at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa earlier this year.
As with most animal incidents, crocodile and alligator attacks are a case of mistaken identity. Jim Darlington, reptile curator at St Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, explains that just splashing around in cloudy water is enough for them to bite first and ask questions later, since they will pretty much eat whatever they can catch.
Because crocodiles and alligators are well-camouflaged ambush hunters, the key to survival is preventing an attack in the first place. When you're in areas known to harbour these reptiles, Darlington suggests you avoid swimming at dawn or dusk, since that's when they're most active and tend to feed. And Frank Mazzotti, crocodile expert at the University of Florida's Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, says that recent rains will make crocodiles more active and more likely to have encounters with people. Always keep a close eye on children as well since their small stature makes them the most likely to be mistaken as prey.
If you come across a crocodile, don't feed it. Crocodiles are generally afraid of people, but feeding them makes them less so -- also it's illegal. If you spot one on land, and you're away from civilisation, that may mean you're trespassing in its territory. Mazzotti recommends you run away as fast as you can in a straight line. They can't run very fast and zig-zag manoeuvres actually expose you to attack more. Crocodiles will only chase humans to defend their territory, and will lose interest as soon as you leave.
If a crocodile bites you, it will latch on and try to pull you underwater in order to drown you. Don't try to pry open its jaws, however, as they're far too strong and they will just clamp down harder. They have one of the most powerful bite forces on the planet. Instead, Mazzotti says you should fight for your life by hitting it and struggle to keep on your feet. Crocodiles want an easy meal, not a struggle, so make things as difficult as possible for them. Go for their eyes and smack their snout. A crocodile will bite then release to readjust its hold a few times during an attack, and that's your best chance to pull free and get away.
This is part of Lifehacker's Animal Attacks Series. As capable as we humans think we are, bears, snakes, wolves, sharks and even bees can turn a fun day outside into a harsh, potentially life-threatening reality check. Here's what to do when you find yourself face to face with some of the deadliest beasts in the great outdoors.