Old Faithful was captured 14th December 1996 in Queensland's Cape York Peninsula on Lakefield National Park. He measured 4.2m, almost 14 feet.
Lakefield National Park is a popular destination for self-reliant travellers, with up to 15,000 people visiting the 132 camp sites within the park per annum.
Park visitors come to explore and appreciate the park's natural and cultural values, and recreational fishing is a major attraction. The majority of visitors desire to see a crocodile in the wild. Because most of the park's camping areas are sited beside permanent waters, this creates the potential for interactions of concern with crocodiles.
During 1994, park rangers received numerous reports of a large C. porosus (Saltwater Crocodile) displaying what was regarded as nuisance behaviour at Old Faithful Waterhole, on the Normanby River (15 degrees 03 980's, 144 degrees 20 054'w). I might add that the majority of "nuisance behaviour" was merely a very large crocodile looking at visitors. Reports stated a crocodile (estimated length of more than 4m) was regularly swimming near or approaching people in fishing boats and at campsites.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staff surveyed the waterhole by spotlight to locate the nuisance crocodile. In an attempt to deter the crocodile from continuing the nuisance behaviour, two rounds of .308 were fired over his head. The action appeared to have the desired effect for several months, before visitor complaints began again. Fisherman and tourists complained about a large Saltwater Crocodile stalking and watching them.
Here's the unfortunate common denominator with this so-called nuisance behaviour, which I see at almost every problem crocodile site: fishermen providing fish carcasses and offal, and campers providing food scraps and rubbish to the crocodiles by discarding their waste in or around the water. Now it's easy to see why the crocs in the waterhole are looking at people! They're what's known as imprinted. They are simply wondering what yummy goodies the people are going to leave at the boat ramp.
In response, the rangers decided it best to close the camp site to public visitation to reduce potential risks to both park visitors and the crocodile (via injury or death to the latter from possible illegal shooting).
Having had a good, solid, long-standing relationship with the rangers in charge of Lakefield National Park, it was arranged for me and my team to join them to alleviate the pressure on this particular crocodile.
Given the problems associated with capture/relocation of large crocodiles, a decision was made to trial an alternative management strategy of behavioural conditioning. It was decided to capture, hold and harass the crocodile to instill a behavioural deterrent against further close interaction with humans.
If successful, the method would not disrupt the local crocodile social structure, but reduce the potential for interaction between the crocodile and visitors.
Trapping Old Faithful
We arrived at Old Faithful Waterhole on 12 December and immediately noticed a large crocodile 50m away. As we prepared to survey the area by boat, the crocodile watched us whilst slowly moving upstream, with only the head visible.
As we approached the male in midstream, it assumed a display posture with the head high out of the water. The display was followed by the crocodile exposing the nuchal scutes, followed by his entire back for approximately 20 seconds before partially submerging until only the neck and head were exposed. The male moved 10m toward an overhanging melaleuca tree and repeated the territorial display before it eventually submerged.
On an exposed mud bank, we found fresh slides and wallows of crocodiles estimated at 4m and 2.5m. The signs were concluded to belong to the nuisance male and a female. The combination of the crocodile's territorial activity and the area's accessibility made this an ideal trap site.
At 14:00 hours, trap #1 was erected at the deep, shady location. The trapping techniques utilised were designed and developed by Bob and Steve Irwin in 1985. An undulating, melaleuca-lined bank was cleared of foliage and debris, then leveled with shovels to create a clearing 8m long by 2m wide from the water's edge. A black 5mm nylon mesh trap was unraveled from the water's edge back into the clearing, the mesh dimensions were 50mm x 50mm and rated at 16 tonnes. The trap (5m long x 1.5m wide x 0.9 m high) was supported by sticks hammered into the ground and strung into position with light breaking strain, hemp twine. The mouth (entrance) of the trap was approximately 600mm from the water's edge and was evenly interwoven with a 12mm rope, which was attached to weight bags (approximately 100kg) suspended from a trap ring 7m up a tree, on a branch capable of withstanding 400kg of force. The weight bags were held in suspension by a 12mm rope, which was attached to a steel rod trigger mechanism, jammed between two spikes, hammered into a 150mm diameter tree trunk directly behind the trap.
The trap was anchored to a large tree with a 14mm rope and baited with a 40kg portion of fresh feral pig (boar) which was secured by a short 8mm rope with a spliced loop over the tripper mechanism. Any jerking or pulling of the bait would release the trigger mechanism and the weight bags would fall, pulling the mouth of the trap closed in a drawstring effect.
Fig.1. Sketch of trap (Link to Trap Design)
Logs, branches and foliage were erected as barricades around the trap to eliminate the possibility of a crocodile approaching the bait from the sides. The only access to the bait was via the trap entrance; the crocodile must enter the trap to reach the bait. Lastly, a lead-in bait was attached by a 3mm rope directly in front of the trap, dangling over the water, where the bait inside the trap was visible to a crocodile.
During the 4 ½ hours taken to set up trap #1, two crocodiles estimated to be 4.2m and 3m, continually emerged to watch our activity, approximately 50m from our trap site. They were considered exceptionally inquisitive and bold.
The trap was completed by 18:30 hours; it was nearly dark. 15 minutes later we arrived back at the vehicles where we decided to set up camp. At 18:55 hours, sounds resembling the trap being triggered off were heard. 10 minutes later, a loud territorial head slap in the water at the trap site was heard and presumed to be a large male crocodile. Throughout the night, rustling could faintly be heard at the trap site and it was assumed we had caught a smallish crocodile.
At 06:00 on 13 December 1996, we met the 2.6m female, caught in the trap. She had entered the trap at 18:55 hours the previous night and we presumed that her mate must have head-slapped a territorial display in response to her distress. She was easily released without restraint and the trap was then reset.
It was decided that the capture of our target crocodile's mate may have stimulated a wariness of the trap, so we set up trap #2 on a mud bank. This trap was 4.5m x 1.5m x 0.9m and was positioned 400mm from the water's edge, less than 100m directly across the waterhole from our camp. It was baited with a 40kg chunk of feral pig.
At 23:45 hours, the camp lights and vehicles were turned off and everybody retired for the night. At 23:55 hours, the stillness of the night was pierced by the rush of plummeting weight bags and the trap triggering off. All night we could hear the commotion of a crocodile in the trap. No loud head thrashing was heard, which intimated the trapped crocodile wasn't franticly fighting for his life, rather, he was confused and endeavouring to push his way free. We decided not to approach the trapped crocodile until daylight to minimise danger and stress.
First light (approximately, 05:30 hours) on the 14th December 1996 revealed that the target crocodile had been trapped. By 06:00 hours two top jaw ropes were in place and the crocodile was secured.
Old Faithful trapped
Interestingly, the mouth of the trap had drawn closed around the base of his tail and cloaca, a common occurrence in previous captures of crocodiles over 3.6m (Irwin personal observation). To ensure no cloacal damage, Old Faithful was easily persuaded all the way into the trap. Once restrained inside the trap with the two top jaw ropes, a canvas shelter was erected and he was kept damp and monitored closely. His measurements were: head length (HL) 565mm, snout vent length (SVL) 2120mm, total length (TL) 4220mm. He had no signs of nose rub or abrasions and was considered to be in prime condition with substantial fat deposits around the neck and the base of the tail. His teeth were large and in good condition. He possessed no obvious scar tissue from territorial disputes with other males. A faecal sample was examined; it contained feral pig hair, leaves and sticks.
Despite his numerous bursts of aggression and struggle throughout the restraining process, Old Faithful never made any attempts to bite us even whilst working close to his head.
Steve and Terri happy with their capture
Educating Old Faithful
On the afternoon of the day he was captured, myself and the District Ranger Barry Lyons circled the water immediately in front of the crocodile in two different sized dinghies, demonstrating to the crocodile the noise and nature of the vessels and the people driving them.
He responded by becoming agitated when an outboard was started. He became even more agitated when he heard an approaching or starting 4WD vehicle. His obvious aggravation was considered a positive sign he feared boats and vehicles. To reinforce this negative association, we camped within 20m of Old Faithful for eight hours, allowing him to see, hear, smell and sense the vibrations of people in close proximity. He acknowledged our presence by watching us closely and tensing his body when we approached him.
During the stillness of night we further harassed Old Faithful in a dinghy with spotlights. Mimicking an illegal crocodile shooter, we stalked as close to him as an illegal hunter would to shoot, we then fired several 444 rounds into the water and the mud bank within 5m of the fearful crocodile. This we considered enough persuasion for him to fear idling outboards and the spotlight of potential crocodile shooters.
After the camp lights were turned off, he was heard moving spasmodically throughout the night.
At 06:00 hours the next morning he was quiet but when an outboard was started, he reacted by becoming distressed and fighting to break free. A similar desperate attempt to escape occurred when a vehicle approached the camp. This we considered as positive signs of stress activated by human activity.
At 06:30 hours Old Faithful's final lesson was 'the power of people'. Eight people straddled and restrained the big crocodile for 15 minutes whilst the trap and top jaw ropes were removed. Under the weight and power of the people, he hardly attempted to fight; this was considered the perfect response to a feeling of being overpowered.
On the count of three, everybody jumped off the crocodile and he was free. Without hesitation he slowly walked into the shallow water and swam for the middle of the waterhole with his head above the water, then headed straight towards the deepest section. At 11:00 hours the next day Old Faithful was observed from a camouflaged position, swimming and basking at the deep, shady area near trap #1.
He appeared to be alert, behaving normally and reunited with his mate, who was also observed close to him. Overall, we were satisfied Old Faithful had responded well to our entire trapping/educational procedure and felt confident he would remain the dominant male crocodile within his territory, thus ensuring the continuation of their pristine ecosystem.
In February 1997 after the wet season, Old Faithful Waterhole was reopened to the general public. Three campsites were occupied by campers, none of whom reported nuisance crocodile behaviour to the park rangers.
From 15 July to 21 July 1997 myself, Terri and the district ranger Barry Lyons surveyed the waterhole to determine the extent of the crocodile's 'people shyness'. During this period Old Faithful was not observed day or night, despite finding his fresh tracks, slides, claw marks and basking areas. On several occasions a crocodile with a total length less than 3m, two juvenile C. porosus and approximately twenty C. johnstoni of various sizes were observed.
During our survey we discussed crocodile activity with fishermen camped on the waterhole. We were told how they (three fishermen in their late forties) saw the "15 foot big old crocodile" waiting for them at the boat ramp. We examined the bank where they moored their dinghy, finding a slide matching a crocodile less than 3m which had been feeding on fish offal, backbones and carcasses left on the bank by fishermen.
Misinterpretation of crocodile behaviour and exaggerated total and head lengths is a common trait for park visitors and tourists. This practice, combined with careless activities around waterholes and providing unnatural food sources for crocodiles, makes it difficult for park rangers to determine bona fide nuisance behaviour and appropriate management strategy.
Subsequent studies of Old Faithful Waterhole by Dr Geoff Miller and Dr Mark Read states leading crocodile biologists found plenty of good, healthy crocodiles but absolutely no signs of getting close to any large animals. Dr Mark Read, Queensland’s leading crocodile biologist has found plenty but had absolutely no chance of getting close to Old Faithful.
He avoided them relentlessly.
We love you mate!During September of 2003 I surveyed the waterhole again and on arrival, Old Faithful was watching me from 400 metres upstream, then disappeared immediately never to be seen again. I spotlighted the waterhole and saw a perfect healthy population of both species of crocs and plenty of campers enjoying the brilliance of Lakefield National Park's wildlife.
Whilst myself and the team were conducting crocodile research in Lakefield National Park during August 2005, I surveyed Old Faithful waterhole both day and night and asked the Rangers about the waterhole- everything was tranquil and peaceful with both campers and crocs.