Thursday, July 30, 2009

Swimming with Crocodiles

There's been a bit of controversy recently around Darwin on the question of life guards (for our American readers, we're talking about people not personal flotating devices). It concerned whether or not funding should be provided to the Darwin Surf Life Savers for a life guard to patrol the popular Mindil Beach during the dry season, when there are plenty of tourists and locals alike who are looking to enjoy the sun, the sand and the surf. Why should this be a problem, you might ask? Well, one of them is whether or not the presence of a life guard effectively endorses swimming in the water that might be home to crocodiles, jellyfish, stingrays, sharks, sunburnt Poms and other nefarious creatures. One of these creatures always sets alarm bells ringing, and it's not the Poms.

Various interviews were conducted by the media, would you go swimming on the beach where more and more crocodiles are being spotted? And let's not mention the box jellyfish that, while generally restricted to the wet season, can occasionally be found in small numbers during the dry.

My opinion is that the point is being missed here. From 2006 to 2007 over 270 people died in Australia from drowning, and although this was reduced in the following year it still represented an alarming number of deaths that should have been avoided. In contrast, the number of crocodile-related fatalities in that period can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and none have ever occurred on or near the beaches of Darwin which are part of a no tolerance crocodile exclusion zone. While it is true that more crocodiles are moving around the coast than ever before, and while we are doing everything we can to increase crocodile safety and increase awareness of crocodiles, there has to be a point where it's all put into perspective. Even driving to the beach is considerably more dangerous than the remote chance of being attacked by a crocodile there.

People need information about crocodiles so they can make their own informed choices about safety. Having Life Savers on the beach is mainly about addressing drowning deaths, and that is a good thing. People won't stop swimming just because you don't have a life guard on duty, but the presence of one will greatly reduce risk. Do we really want to head down the slippery slope of banning any activity that has a remote chance of ending badly? Should we just stay at home and not get out of bed to maximise our chances of living another day? I don't think so... unless of course we are concerned about the possibility of a tree falling on the house. Life is indeed full of risks - where do we draw the line?


dlal said...

Interesting topic Adam. I guess in the end it all comes down to more education and public awareness. The patroled beaches (or unpatroled beaches) should have more public signs warning of the dangers and risks if people decide to go swimming. But in spite of the recents events which have occured around Darwin, there will be a fair few people who will take the risk and do stupid things. But as you say.. we live everyday with risks. My house is crawling with White Tailed spiders, but I've learnt to live with them. Who knows maybe in due time, humans will evolve to learn to adapt to their natural environment a little bit better.

Warren said...

I think the fear of predators has to do with the loss of control. There's an idea, justified or not, that if you crash your car or drown or get bitten while handling a venomous snake, you took unnecessary risks and were probably acting like an idiot. But if you're playing it safe and a predator picks you off, well, it's not your fault. And that is terrifying.

Adam Britton said...

Perhaps it has more to do with our awareness of that loss of control. We may be responsible for our own driving errors, but we have no control over the actions of others who are far more likely to kill us by running a red light for example. Despite the real risk of this happening we rarely if ever consider the possibility. Yet the fear of being eaten alive by an invisible predator below the waves is too much for some people's imaginations no matter how remote the risk.

It's interesting to contemplate whether we'll evolve to learn to adapt. In fact the opposite seems to have happened: we've lost that link with the environment we live in, and lost that knowledge of dealing with natural situations.

Wakefield Tolbert said...

Well, people have to make their own minds about that threshold of danger. We all have to drive, but not all HAVE to go in the woods, though I'll admit that much pleasure is lost due to inordinate fear of venomous snakes, but at that you DO need to have a backup plan. This is not to say we can be reckless for safety and pull a Timothy Treadwell trick in the north of Alaska and pretend that since bears are seldom man killers, that temptation can't get the better of them. The analogies go on and on.

Not sure what one can do about crocs, but to be wary of the likely hideouts and lineups where these guys hang out. Or choose a hotel pool instead?

The nastiest thing we have in South Carolina is the American Alligator. While attacks are rare, quite a few dogs seem to go missing in these elite enclaves where people and gator mix in the swanky areas where some developer thinks cutting houses into what used to be wetlands is just grand. Nice homes, dangerous surroundings. I've seen kids playing in the Intercoastal waterway where gators come to snack in the brackish water and where I've personally caught all manner of creatures such as small hammerhead sharks.

Bring a dog to the water to sample the crab traps, and while the kids are probably safe, you'll see those eye bob out of the water sure enough.

I think this all has to do with thinking things all the way through rather than working our leisure time on impulse. It's not the gators fault for example that he dosen't mind chlorine water and that kiddie pool (yeah, sounds funny but it's not) looks just dandy for a water hole to bask in the southern heat, etc., or someone's beloved poodle is a great afternoon snack (that's more often the attack).

This reminds me of the NatGeo special I saw where a guide (not sure if province authorized or how that works in Australis) assured one group of young people about a certain pond being safe due to lack of eyeshine for just a brief sweep of a rather large body of water.

The narrator indicated that this was very unreliable, as saltie crocs can stay underwater for half an hour sometimes.

Not sure what happned to the guide, but a young woman lost her life to a 15-footer they found a few hours later guarding her body in its teeth.

The tragedy here is not like the one of "lifeboat" scenarios, and should have been totally avoidable.

One assumes that north of certain latitudes and rivers, have water--have crocs, or assume such!

Dr. Britton, you mentioned that vital link to nature. My understanding from some claims is that the aborigines know (or knew at one time) how to look for the subtle signs that raise the gooseflesh and hackles and get more in tune with things.

Do you think this is true of feeling out crocs as well? Or is this more of a tall tale?