By Lauren Novak
A dark figure slowly approaches the boat, attracted by the ripples sent out from a bundle of meat dangling in the murky river water. Feeder Wendy taps the meat – a bunch of pig skull portions, complete with eyeballs – on the surface as a large crocodile homes in on the afternoon snack. Then, all of a sudden, it’s gone – slipping underwater, only to reappear seconds later, right underneath the dangling morsel.
Using a muscular tail, the rogue male croc begins to rise out of the water, reaching for his reward. But Wendy’s on to him, lifting it just out of reach to coax him further above the surface until – chomp – mission accomplished.
We’re aboard the Adelaide River Queen II, cruising down the river of the same name about 65km southeast of Darwin in saltwater crocodile country.
When I first heard about jumping crocodile cruises I was sceptical. I imagined an exploitative venture which toyed with these powerful reptiles, making them perform like a dancing monkey for jeering, snap-happy onlookers.
Instead, our guides – Wendy in charge of the meat and Connie behind the wheel – treat the ancient creatures with a healthy respect, reminding visitors they are still wild animals. If one doesn’t want to jump, they can’t be forced. If they take too long to make a move, the boat will motor on – there are plenty of other hungry crocs in the river.
And there are rules about where and when feedings can occur, including a very sensible no-feeding zone close to where the boats dock so as not to encourage crocs to venture up to the tourist café in search of a meal.
There are four hour-long tours each day and skipper Connie says they try to share the food around.
“Our idea is not to over-feed them because they do still hunt in the wild,” she says.
“We write down which crocs we feed. We only like to do the three jumps (with each crocodile). You’re not allowed to just keep jumping and jumping them to get that perfect photo.”
Tourists come from around the world to snap pictures of the jumping crocs – from either a bird’s-eye view or eye-to-eye depending on which level of the double-decker boat they choose.
From the top level, there is a sense of foreboding as you spot a croc in the distance and track its steady approach to the boat it recognises as a meal ticket. Once up close, you can see every detail of their scaly skin, glinting eyes and jagged yellow teeth.
In typical Darwin style, there is beer available on board the River Queen – for those who can’t go an hour without it in the Top End heat – and passengers are free to move around on deck with few restrictions.
Connie says there are between 80 and 100 crocs who regularly feed from the boat, and they come and go depending on the season.
Nifty, a 4.7m rogue male is about 40 years old, got his name because he’s “a nifty jumper”. “He’s a star around here,” Connie says.
Then there’s Skinny Minny, a 2.5m female whose “legs splay out like a frog” when she jumps. Thelma and Louise are neighbours, Stumpy’s missing a limb and a chunk off his tail and Gizmo is known for sneaking around under the surface.
Steady Eddy – named by Australian comedian Christopher Widdows who uses the stage name Steady Eddy – is recognised by her deformed right front limb, which Connie says is likely a result of poor egg incubation. “(Steady Eddy) has the same kind of deformity and he was actually on a cruise … and he named that croc,” Connie says.
For most visitors to the Top End, a crocodile encounter is top of the must-do list but they can often be hard to spot safely in the wild.
Despite my initial scepticism, a jumping croc cruise is an exciting and informative way to guarantee you’ll see more of these animals in their natural habitat than just two eyes and nostrils above the water.