When crocodiles are in trouble they ‘moo’, did you know that? Like big fat cows or Casey Donovan, they ‘moo’. I’d never heard it but growing up being taught an equal fear of both sharks and crocodiles I’d been told of it many times.
The first time the deep hollow of a crocodile in distress alerted me to something going on I was at place called Numarrgoon. North of Broome in the Kimberly region of Western Australia it was a short drive from my childhood stomping ground of One Arm Point.
Numarrgoon is home to ‘fish trap’, a name that didn’t take too much imagination as it’s the name of a small bay that holds a fish trap, built of rocks between a cliff that drops into the water and a small sand bar a few hundred meters from waters edge. Constructed centuries ago by local aboriginal people it’s design is to make the most of the massive tidal movement local to the area and the uneven depths of the ocean bed that the rock wall stretches across. With the tide, the level of the ocean drops out in such a way that all matter of sea life get caught on one side of the rock wall – where the ocean bed is higher than the other- as the tide drains it almost dry. At low tide the pool of water is only knee deep though about the size of an Olympic swimming pool and is always home to scores of sea life. Everything from mullet and coral trout to turtles and sharks have been deceived by the simple trickery of ‘fish trap’ and fallen easy prey to my family, friends and I with our spears.
It’s at ‘fish trap’ where I first experienced the bellowing of a distressed crocodile. At first none of us thought anything of hearing what we thought was a cow, it was only when we got closer to the hill leading down to the rock wall that we realized the noise was coming from ‘fish trap’ and started our dash to kill our collective curiosity.
What scares a crocodile? Not a lot I imagine. But as I found out that day, a crocodile caught between a shark staking it’s territory in a pool full of food and the crocodiles own instinctive determination to claim that nourishing ground for itself is a crocodile shitting itself.
I’ll try if I can to lay the scene as I first saw it when I ran over that red pindan sand hill.
The tide is out exposing a grey ocean bed for one hundred meters in each direction from a pool of water about knee deep. On one side of the pool of water is a rock wall, on the other side, laying at the edge in water just up to its shoulders is a crocodile, about 4 meters long so not too big, but big enough to cause many ‘lets get the fuck out of here’ moments, often followed with ‘I need a new pair of pants’ moments.
And in the middle of the pool a tiger shark. I love tiger sharks and they are firmly entrenched in the history of my aboriginal family. Long and sleek, like a stretched out ball of muscle with a mouth full of teeth under it’s nose, this one was only about three meters long. Far from fully grown, but hungry and determined not to let go it’s hope of a feeding frenzy should it be able to dispatch of this pesky crocodile.
Boom! It was like a torpedo hitting the side of a war ship. An explosion of water five meters into the air followed by thrashing tails, heads and teeth.
We all stood there dumb founded, the image when I looked up at my uncle I would not forget. His sun-dried face was more concerned than anything. I’m not sure what about, maybe whether or not there would be a rock wall left standing once these two were done fighting over its prisoners. The ochre red of the hills behind him a finely cut contrast to the faded black of his skin, the crystal blue of the ocean off in the distance, beyond the grey silk carpet ocean bed leading back to us. Back to the battle of the beasts.
It was akin to what I imagine watching a city under siege in biblical times might have looked like. A big, strong, thick, unmoving powerhouse under repeat attack from a smaller, faster, more mobile enemy. The shark doing circles and building up speed before cannoning into the crocodile, jaws agape, tearing its flesh and muscle apart. The crocodile, despite taking repeated blows and showing it, had it’s strategy set though, even if we did not know it and was unwavering. It did not move, not backwards, nor forwards or sideward’s other than when in a wrestle with its tenacious enemy.
As the shark made impact, dragging blood from tissue, the crocodile would latch on where ever it could and try it’s damnest to pull the shark out of water and onto dry land.
After successfully fighting it’s escape back into the pool of now red water on many occasions the shark was tiring, the crocodile on the other hand had hardly moved between scraps and used that time to wisely recover.
The tiger shark on the other hand had expended a lot of energy swimming back to speed up on it’s approach to each battle and was running out of steam – and hope. Somehow, inexplicably, we knew it too, my uncle put his hand on my shoulder as the tiger swam back to the rocky edge of the pool, extending it’s run up to the full. I could feel my cousin stop breathing; the lump of grey flicked its half exposed tail and accelerated across ‘fish trap’ with everything it had, it felt like it took everything we had too. I’m not sure why, maybe somehow we had realized he was in trouble, but it seemed in that moment at least, we were on his side.
It wasn’t enough though; the torpedo had failed to sink the ship and was now in a world of trouble.
Slowed and considerably less powerful, the shark struggled to make an impact as its foe sank its teeth into his side. He could not muster the strength required to free himself the grip of such a great creature and was dragged from his world and onto the dry land that gave every advantage to his opponent and took away all of his.
It’s amazing to watch what happens at the end of most fights between two opponents that just won’t quit.
And as I believe is often the case, no one comes out a winner.
It was definitely the case here. As the shark rolled around, flapping like the proverbial fish out of water, meters from salvation. The gigantic monster that had pulled him to his death turned and walked away from the prize.
We all stood silently and watched as the current inception of an animal, thousands of years old, walked slowly off, wounded, bleeding profusely from holes in the side of its neck and shoulders. Our eye’s stayed fixed on the amphibious killer all the way to the start of the mangrove forest, where we lost it quickly amongst the tree trunks and exposed roots.
I’m not sure if it lived, but I’m sure that there were a lot of fish in that pond that breathed a sigh of relief, and got the fuck out of there the moment the tide came back in!!!