by Dr. Adam Britton
The East Alligator River in Kakadu National Park holds no alligators, yet lurking out of sight are creatures once so feared and reviled that some have called them dragons. Even today, the mystery of these river saurians holds an apprehensive fascination for all who enter their realm.
Near the end of a typical day, the blazing sun retreats towards the western horizon, and shadows begin to engulf the riverbanks. It is low tide and several meters of soft, sticky mud have been revealed at the water's edge. The entire river is the color of milky coffee due to the effect of suspended mud particles, and the water swirls in impatient eddies around branches projecting above the surface as the outgoing tide pulls it towards the sea. On the mud bank small creatures hop, scurry and skitter around: curious mudskippers signalling with their dorsal fins, jittery crabs sifting mud for food, and wary hunting spiders searching for tiny insects trapped in the mire. Almost undetected amidst them all, two discs of mud peel back and a pair of glaring, coppery eyes cast their intense, reptilian gaze across the scene. Moments later, the mud erupts outwards as the creature lifts its head, sticky globules sliding off the jaws to reveal glistening teeth. Behind this startling apparition, a tail snakes and muddy limbs appear as the beast half swims, half runs down the viscous bank towards the familiar domain of the river.
The first time I witnessed this from a nearby boat, I was quite surprised that the mud was capable of disgorging such a creature. Yet such imagery has burned a lasting impression into my heart and my mind, and underscores the very reason I traveled to Australia to study these incredible and awe-inspiring creatures -- saltwater crocodiles. Naturally, the bestial vision before me also reminded me of the difficulties faced by these creatures in the modern world, even out here in the more remote parts of Australia. Beauty truly lies in the eye of the beholder, yet caked in mud like this it's hard even for an obsessed crocodile researcher to convince anyone that he holds these leviathans amongst the most magnificent creatures on the planet. Even the very word "crocodile" carries enough emotional baggage to instill irrational fear and loathing into many. It is little surprise that cries of "save the crocodile!" usually go unheeded unless radical approaches are used -- the distillation of revolutionary ideas, and the very stuff of controversy!