October 27th 2008
Houdini croc: our first photo since weekend escape
Some media outlets are referring to Magnetic Island's problem crocodile as Wighty, named after Paul "Wighty" Wightman - the first Islander to report the reptile at Cockle Bay on October 8. But perhaps the croc would be better named after escape artist, Harry Houdini since it disappeared from a creek this weekend which had up to three EPA nets across its mouth and several temptingly baited traps. Given the location it was quite possible he could have walked out across mud flats and dunes behind the stake-out but, an extensive search of the area by Magnetic Times failed to reveal croc tracks whatsoever.
Last night at 6.30pm Magnetic Times was, however, fortunate be able to take the first photograph of "Houdini" since he escaped.
We returned to monitor the creek's mouth - sharing the EPA's hopes that the elusive reptile would return to a slide it had used a number of times previously. As night approached the view across Halifax Bay to the mountainous mainland, where the sun had just set behind jungle clad, wet tropics ranges, formed an impressive backdrop to our adventure.
Our small party sat behind the bank of the creek - keeping a low profile and scanning the placid waters for half an hour as the tide crept in and bait fish churned in regular false alarms. But, as we waited, the intensity of our quest ebbed with the lowering light. Taking in the softly washed colours and ambiance of our surrounds we began to chat amiably as if it were any other Magnetic sunset picnic.
But then Penelope said, "There it is!" and our eyes darted to a point about 100 meters away. It was faint but unmistakable and, in a moment, our mood had changed. In a couple of seconds I had the camera trained on the spot and there it was again. Just one successful shot was taken before it dived.
A closer view
We were all charged with undeniable excitement but also some unease. The chatter and jokes: like the one that this wired croc (released for research purposes with a satellite tracker) was swimming around Magnetic trying to get better mobile reception - were replaced with something altogether different and serious. We were now where a 3.5 metre member of the largest predatory animal species in Australia could be about to make landfall. It is mating season and this time of year male crocs are full of testosterone.
Levels of concentration and heightened alertness that probably link back to more ancient, hunter parts of my brain seemed to awaken as darkness approached. The time was coming when we would run the risk of spooking the reptile with torches and potentially exacerbate the ranger's efforts to lure Houdini back to the trap and its stinky, rotting pig carcass, bait. But, while we kept the torches off, the odds in favour of the croc actually using the dark to stalk us were rising. With no proper daylight left for a worthwhile photo, we left.
We returned at 5.45am this morning and apart from what appeared to be a pair of frolicking dugongs about 150 metres out, there was nothing else to report.
The EPA had responded to another possible sighting on Magnetic's north west coast at Five Beach Bay but were unable to complete their patrol due to a mechanical fault with their vessel.
There has been so much interest in this croc and it is because it has been the first in a very very long time to be sighted swimming past several of the Island's favourite swimming beaches. Call it Wighty or Wighty Houdini - this critter is all Magnetic Island has been talking about for weeks.
For those unfamilar with the tale and its croc we can now reveal more information which goes to the heart of our choice of a northern lifestyle and the reality of this potentially wild environment.
Firstly, Wighty Houdini, is not from these parts. He came from 1000kms away at Bamaga at the tip of Cape York and is, in fact, part of an ambitious research program known as, "Crocs in Space". Satellite trackers glued to the backs of wild crocs are used to see how strong their homing instincts are. In this case, to see if a relocated croc brought to a low croc density area such as the Haughton River's Barramundi Creek, 50 kms south of Townsville, would settle in and become a local and set up his own range or, try to return home. Some crocs have been recorded returning 700kms from one side of croc-dense Cape York to the other where they had a territory. Wighty Houdini seemed to be enjoying his new digs for about one month but then, inexplicably, changed his mind and began his journey north but, just to Magnetic Island.
Mr Mike Devery, the Environment Protection Agency's (EPA) Wildlife Manager told Magnetic Times, "He was trapped near Bamaga. The EPA had been called in to trap another, larger croc, which had become a problem. "This (Wighty Houdini) was a non-target croc," says Mike Devery. "It was trapped while we were after the other croc and the community asked if we could remove it too."
"We are trying to increase our knowledge of crocs and their behaviour. We hope to get enough science to understand why they travel and to help us determine how they react."
Mike elaborated on what the EPA considers to be a problem or target croc. "A croc that stays around a swimming beach becomes a target croc (for removal) but there are other crocs that are simply passing through." Unfortunately for the experiment Wighty Houdini has now flunked his target/non-target test and is being pursued. "Whether he was moving home or not is unknown" said Mike.
As for calls that the croc be shot instead of the slower capture process EPA has adopted, Mike Devery said, "Crocs can be a challenge to catch but if we persist we will catch it. I don't think we need to go to that alternative."
Estuarine crocodiles are a protected species are are listed as vulnerable.
Magnetic Times has been critical of the EPA's apparent slowness to inform the public of up to date crocodile information but Mike Devery claims it is a "fine line" judgement. After Wighty Houdini escaped, Mike Devery said, "The first people to be informed were the beach life savers. We also contacted the dive shops but the EPA is conscious of not over triggering croc information with media as crocodiles are likely to be in the area. We need to make sure we don't inculcate the public to worry that there is only a croc about when we say so. When in a croc habitat (Magnetic Island has croc-habitat) you cannot be sure there isn't one around."
As for W. Houdini's escape, Mike Devery notes that Island Ranger Nathan Winn had noticed that before one of the nets went down there could have been a loose "push out" section.
This afternoon the EPA searched again along the Island's west coast but without success.
Story & photos: George Hirst
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