Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard was once aptly quoted, stating:
“It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.”
This choicest selection of eight words serves as both temptation and warning, both a reason to leave and a cause to step with caution.
The tales we so often tell are often as much of the immaculate waves, the unspoiled landscapes and the biggest catch as they are the moments when disaster strikes and we are challenged to our limits.
The Solomon Islands provided an exquisite backdrop for myriad experiences, its crystaline waters and impeccable forests a breathtaking vista throughout which to revel. Diving, adventuring, surfing, our 14-day trip was little short of perfect...until it wasn’t.
Stories abound in the Solomons of saltwater crocodiles, but sightings are rare and attacks all but unheard of. Admittedly, our perpetual quest for experiential adventure instilled a sense of curiosity, and we grilled our host, Woody, about if and where we might be able to witness one of these prehistoric creatures in its natural habitat.
“We had watched a BBC series all about the Solomons,” recalls Drifter team member Curtis, “and one episode was all about the saltwater crocodiles. Right at the end, there was five seconds of footage of one way down the beach - it was the only one that they could find the whole time they were there. They have been hunted to near-extinction, they said, and you’d be lucky to see one.”
“They'd found four-metre crocs there,” corrects Drifter founder, Jake MacKenzie, “proper North-Western Australia salties, just like dinosaurs. Very near where we were, on Russell Island, there used to be an abattoir and there is still a very high congregation of crocodiles in that area.”
Whatever the truth of the documentary, crocs were noticeably absent from our journeys and day trips throughout the archipelago, but sightings we were told did occur, and when they did, could be incredibly confronting:
“They told us they hardly ever see them, but at one particular swim-through cave, this guy swam into it once and there was a crocodile in there already. It was only a small one but he had to kill it, because they’re really dangerous, especially being trapped into a saltwater lagoon with one.”
Toward the end of our sojourn, however, true to Yvon Chouinard’s prediction, adventure began.
“We stayed for an extra week and went to a tiny, remote island one day, between two of the major island groups of the Solomons,” Curtis recollects. This particular island held ominous history from the Solomons’ headhunting days of yore: “It used to be a place that warriors and tribesmen would stop between raids to clean their headhunted skulls before returning to their villages. It’s uninhabited and has a volcano crater lagoon at its centre. It’s like something out of Jurassic Park, with huge coral heads and mangroves coming down to the shore.”
“It felt like the Land That Time Forgot,” adds Jake. “We caught a little fish and threw it on a fire to cook and a huge monitor lizard came down out of the forest to try and poach the fish straight out of the fire. It was really a wild place.”
Keen for more dive time prior to departure, our band of adventurers came to shore for lunch prior to some more underwater exploration, but Curtis had other ideas. Revelling on his trip’s experiences thus far, he bailed out early, keen to get a little more subaquatic time.
“I jumped off the side of the boat and went out into the lagoon by myself. I should have known better, because there were mangroves everywhere, and the cardinal rule of diving is to never go by yourself.”
Not quite the infamous ‘never get out of the boat’ scene of Apocalypse Now fame, but Curtis’ gut was offering sage advice. Whatever the conditions, wherever the location, however experienced the diver, to go solo is only for the foolhardy.
Woody and Jake soon followed Curtis into the lagoon, though - again, turning their backs on better knowledge - decided to swim solo into other areas of the lagoon.
Perhaps it was complacency bred of the passivity of previous days’ dives, perhaps bravado fed by the overexcitement of being in such pristine surroundings. Whatever the reason, Curtis had choses to ignore his own wisdom and intuition and Nature, as she is so inclined to do, was swift to reprimand:
“As I’m breathing up, something slammed into the side of my head,” Curtis begins, ominously. “Somehow, I thought it was the boat backing into me, but the rest of the guys hadn’t come out to meet me yet. It was really violent and felt metallic and hurt a lot. I clamped down on my snorkel with my mouth, but my mask was ripped off, still attached to the snorkel. I held onto my gun and was really angry, ready to yell at whoever was driving the boat.”
But his spontaneous assailant wasn’t a boat, his companions now on the beach a five-minute swim from where he was now floundering. Curtis was alone.
“As I was getting my shit together, I realised I hadn’t heard a boat, so it must have been an animal.
“I put my mask back on, and as I looked up, all I could see was a big row of teeth. I had blood in my eye, so could only see out of the other one. I thought, ‘holy f***, I’m not going home unless I do something right now.’
“I backed up and brought my gun up, put my mask on a little better and got a good look at it and realised it actually wasn’t that big - it was about my size - but it had my head in its mouth.”
“I was busy diving, seeing some beautiful fish,” Jake recollects, “emperors, Mus, mangrove jacks - and then I suddenly heard this bloodcurdling sound. It was the kind of sound that you really don’t ever want to hear. My first thought was, ‘oh shit, there's a bull shark or something’. I couldn't quite get my head around it.”
Unlike sharks, which predominantly ‘attack’ us purely out of curiosity, crocodiles are known to stalk and kill people, earning the ominous moniker of the animal most likely to eat a human. “Crocs”, says Jake, “are some of the gnarliest ambush predators. They'll stay in the same spot and watch people, say, washing clothes and figure out the human timetable and then attack. They're incredibly calculating.” Crocs also attack prey much larger than themselves, taking it into a notorious death role to drown it, before securing it below the water to consume over an extended period.
But Curtis got lucky that day - if ‘luck’ is a word you can use in such circumstances - and his equipment potentially saved his life.
“When it had gone to role, my mask had absorbed the impact and then rolled off of my head, effectively saving me, my head popping out of its mouth like a slippery coconut. I was okay, so I started to swim away, kicking myself that I hadn’t paid attention, I felt like something was wrong but just ignored it. This thing probably thought I was injured or just stupid or something!” The croc wasn’t about to give up its meal so swiftly however, though Curtis was now prepared for a second assault. “I thought it would probably leave me alone after the first attack and I had my gun levelled at it. I looked into its eyes and could see it focus in on me again. It started to move its tail and I saw its head swing back towards me for another attack. I thought, ‘okay - I’ve got one shot at this’. I let some air out, sank down a little deeper. I shot and just got really lucky; the spear pierced its underside and paralysed it immediately. Normally when you shoot something, no matter how big it is, it just goes berserk, and you’re attached to it by the line. I was ready for the biggest fight of my life...but I just got really lucky. I could see the surprise in its eyes and it was done. I’d got it right through the spine.”
A call far too close for comfort, and a poignant and justly-earned lesson - one which he has unwaveringly adhered to on subsequent trips. Though Curtis was able to breathe a sigh of relief and collect himself, he was bleeding profusely, despite only sustaining superficial puncture wounds, and was all too aware that where one predator lurks, others are sure to not be far. Aside from that, he was now attached to 70 kilos of rapidly-sinking deadweight, his line fastened to his gun and his spear inextricable from the crocodile’s body.
“It started sinking. I came up and looked around for another one, checking everywhere and checking to see if it had come back to life. It started sinking, so I let out heaps of line, came up again and yelled for help in a not-too-panicked way, but it still probably came out pretty panicked!
“I saw everyone’s heads turn around. Woody and Jake were in the lagoon and swimming towards me already, but they were fishing. The boat took a minute to get off the beach and came roaring over, and the dude saw me. It must have looked worse than it was; it got me in the head, though only nicked me, but I had blood all over my face and he suddenly saw the crocodile beneath me."
Jake continues the story: “He [Curtis] looked like that movie, Carrie, when she's covered in blood! He looked like he was out of a horror movie. But then I looked up at the side of the boat, and there was the crocodile. It probably took me about 30 seconds to put two and two together.
“I jumped up on the boat, looking at Curtis, who was still in shock. The croc was still alive with a spear through its head. I grabbed my knife and tried to find a soft spot at the back of the head to kill it quickly and humanely so that it didn't suffer - it was hard to find a spot that wasn't covered in scales.”
"That was the day before my birthday," says Curtis. "I had a really weird birthday.”
‘Weird’ is possibly somewhat of an understatement. After all, spending the afternoon with your head in the mouth of a crocodile is hardly a regular occurrence, and one best not repeated too frequently. For Curtis, however, it was an experience that came with humility, and even regret. He knew he had been foolish, swimming without company in an area known for saltwater crocodiles, and one he was not familiar with.
Hunting has pushed the Solomon’s crocodile population to near-endangered levels, and taking the life of another was completely against Curtis’ wishes. But his was an instinctual fight for survival and without his quick reflexes and skills as a spear fisherman, this tale may have had a very different ending.
“It could have been so much worse,” reflects Jake. “Luckily it wasn't the mother or the father.
“We were probably about three hours away from Driftwood Lodge, and then another three or four hours away from any medical assistance, so if it had grabbed him by the neck or dragged him down, it could have been a very different outcome. In Hindsight, we were very lucky.”
“I have always thought,” Curtis concludes, “that to die by an apex predator while you’re out in the wild, that’s an honourable way to go.”
Note: Curtis, Jake and the team returned to the main island with the crocodile, sharing it with a local village where it was cooked and distributed amongst the community and its skin also cleaned and used by the villagers. Though its death was regrettably unavoidable, it was not in vain and no part of the crocodile was wasted.