Are crocodiles really a threat to surfers?

After the tragic death of British journalist Paul McClean in Sri Lanka last week, surfers are reminded that in some parts of the world crocodiles can be a deadly danger. While McLean wasn’t actually surfing at the time of his death, he had been staying at a surf camp near the well-known spot of Elephant Rock and had walked 500 yards to relieve himself near a lagoon when he was taken by the crocodile.

Surfers in Sri Lanka haven’t traditionally had a problem with crocodiles. With most of the crocs being freshwater species, they rarely, if ever, enter the ocean and become a threat to surfers.

The prehistoric beasts are the last thing you need in the lineup. Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In other parts of the world, however, most notably Costa Rica and the northern parts of Australia, crocodiles are a well-known surf danger. Last year, American surfer Jon Becker was viciously mauled near Tamarindo in Costa Rica while crossing an estuary during a morning surf session. Becker survived, but had his leg amputated.

That was recorded as the seventh attack of the year in Tamarindo, and crocs have become more of a risk there. Three months later, during the Essential Costa Rica Open, a World Surf League Qualifying Series event, crocodiles showed up in the contest lineup two of the five days of competition, forcing the event to be delayed.

Costa rica crocodiles

Essential Costa Rica Open winner Ethan Ewing returns to the water after the croc interruptions. Photo: Courtesy of Johan Pacheco/WSL

“I’ve seen over 100 crocodiles in the water since I moved to Costa Rica 13 years ago,” American former pro surfer Jim Hogan told Surfline after Becker’s attack. Hogan’s tip was an obvious one, but it’s worth repeating: “Crocs are always in the estuaries. They like the murky water. It’s the same as Florida with ‘gators – you’re not going to go swim in the ponds or walk along the mangroves.”

However, this tip is more difficult to apply in Australia’s Northern Territory, where the deadly saltwater crocs patrol both the river systems and the open oceans. When the waves come to life for a brief period in the dry season between April and September, the small number of surfers in the area is on constant alert.

Crocodile warning signs in Australia’s Northern Territory. Photo: Courtesy of Tony Ireson

“Russian roulette: That’s what it feels like every time I enter the water here,” Tony Ireson, a nurse and keen surfer who has recently moved to Australia’s top end, told GrindTV.

“Everything, it seems, in Australia’s north is out to kill you: water buffalo, snakes and spiders on land and, in the water, stingers, Irukandji — a lethal jellyfish as big as your thumbnail — and crocodiles.”

Since 1971 there have been 23 fatal and 50 non-fatal attacks in the Northern Territory, an average of 1.5 attacks per year. Yet none of these attacks have been on surfers, with the majority occurring in the inland estuaries.

In his blog on dangerous animals, Bill Gates (yes, that Bill Gates) estimates that around 1,000 people die worldwide from crocodiles, compared to an average of 10 from sharks. However, there has never been a reported death of a surfer from a crocodile or alligator attack.

That is small comfort to Ireson, who knows that the threat of crocodiles is all too apparent whenever the surf is on. “I have been here six months and while I haven’t seen one, I have seen plenty of tracks on the beach,” he says.

“They are lurking, as I am constantly informed of sightings around the area from friends and workmates who have come across the beasts sunning themselves on the beach.”

Not the tracks you want to see when you are going for a surf. Photo: Courtesy of Tony Ireson

He has two pieces of advice. “The first and obvious tip is that you never surf alone,” he says. “Apart from improving your own chances by having a mate getting hit, you’ll need help to get [to the] hospital, assuming you survive.”

The second tip is a bit more unorthodox: “Last month I went for a surf with my mate Tim, and his dog paddled out in front us. So I figured that the dog would be a good feed for the crocs instead of us.

“At first, I was initially a bit freaked out, as the water was murky [and] you couldn’t see more than 3 yards in front of you. However, as we stroked into a few peelers, the anxiety disappeared and we enjoyed the ride, oblivious to whatever was out there with us.”

The reward for the risk: empty waves in the Northern Territory. Photo: Courtesy of Tony Ireson

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