Caution: Croc On Board

Australians Tom Nichols and Nevelle Haskins are out catching and relocating crocodiles in Darwin. Care to join them?

When Tom Nichols pulls up outside my hotel to pick me up, the first thing I notice is the size of the boat he's hauling. It's small. Very small.

Mr. Nichols, a ranger with the Parks & Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory, is in the crocodile business. For 15 years he has been catching them in Darwin's Shoal Bay, and today I'm going along.

As I ask him about his extraordinary job, I expect him to show me a grizzly scar with a story to match. But he hasn't a mark on him.

Glancing at his hands, I'm pleased to count all 10 fingers.

"Do you think we'll catch any today?" I ask anxiously. "Definitely," Nichols says. "At least three of the traps are full."

"Great," I say, not sounding too convincing. "And where do we put them once we catch them?" I ask, still worried about our 15-foot-long boat.

"Oh, in the boat," he says with a grin.

Nichols is a self-taught croc catcher. No one had even tried catching them before he and his boss, Nevelle Haskins, started a conservation program that also aims at keeping the large reptiles away from Darwin's water-loving citizens. Their program has helped end the killing of the not-so-warm-and-fuzzy man-eater in the area.

"When it's humans versus crocodiles," Mr. Haskins says, "crocodiles come out second."

About three times a week, Nichols and Haskins check the 19 permanent traps inside the 110-by-25-mile area they patrol. Traps account for 70 percent of the crocodiles they catch. The other 30 percent are caught in open waters. In 1996, they caught 120. Most go to crocodile farms where they are placed in a breeding program.

A TV crew is waiting for us by the water. I envy their bigger boat.

After 20 minutes on the water, we pull up to the first trap in Mecketts Creek. A croc the length of a Buick begins thrashing about.

Despite trying to remain cool and calm, I can't hold back a scream. That done, I can't help noticing the croc's beautiful golden-topaz eyes.

The 15-by-6-foot steel trap is partially submerged and baited with a dead chicken hanging from a rope that runs to a trap door.

When the croc, who has a keen sense of smell, (but is somewhere up there with spaghetti squash on the intelligence scale) grabs the chicken, the door slams shut, trapping the still-hungry croc.

Nichols stands on top of the cage, which rocks wildly back and forth as the croc panics. (Good balance would definitely be requirement of this job description.) Through a narrow door he lassos the upper snout of the croc and leads the lizard-on-a-leash out of the cage and around to the side of the bigger camera crew's boat.

The boat tips precariously as everyone comes around to the crocodile side, where the TV cameraman and I are perched on the edge.

Not happy with any of this, the croc is snapping his jaws and spinning in the water. Inches away from the jaws, and trying to focus with a wide angle lens, I'm thinking: Never in America. They'd be worried about a lawsuit.

Haskins waits for the right moment, when the powerful jaws have snapped shut, to wind a blue nylon rope around its snout. Apparently crocs have tremendous power when closing their jaws but are wimps when it comes to opening them up again.

This is when the volunteers come in.

Unsuspecting fishermen, tourists with a sense of adventure, or even journalists covering the catch are asked to "help." (Of course, they don't tell you this when you ask if you can go along.) I have an excuse: I have to take pictures.

Not having the camera excuse, Australian TV reporter Alison Morrow is asked to cover the 11-1/2-foot croc's eyes with a wet burlap cloth while Haskins uses duct tape to secure it.

I hear her murmuring, "I can't believe I'm doing this."

The burlap sack helps calm the croc as visual stimulation is removed. If they get too agitated, they can die from exhaustion.

Three fishermen, mouths agape, watch the process. Haskins asks if they can lend a hand hoisting the big boy out of the water. No answer. When the fishermen realize he's serious, one gets off the hook with an injured-foot excuse. The others, out of excuses, "volunteer."

Croc No. 1 is tied up to the side of the boat by his leash, his back legs secured with duct tape. "Watch his tail," Haskins shouts, "one swipe could break your leg."

We decide to split up for the capture of the remaining two crocs to save time. Ms. Morrow comes aboard our little boat. We find a smaller croc in the next trap, "only" 9-1/2 feet.

Morrow, the veteran, helps Nichols with the process: the wet burlap over the eyes and hauling him out of the water. I again use the camera excuse. (Hey, it worked the first time.)

"No matter how many we catch, we still get an adrenaline rush," Nichols says. Somehow, I'm happy to hear this. "Each catch is different."

"I've always had a special touch for the crocodiles. They're the oldest living animals, going back to prehistoric times. If people just touch the skin, their attitude toward them changes straightaway."

Heading back to shore, I stroke the skin of this ferocious predator, who is now bound and harmless. It really is beautiful, and softer than I expected. I'm pleased these men have such respect and even love for this often-feared creature and are helping guarantee its survival.

I mark this down as one of my most exciting photo assignments. But for Nichols and Haskins, it's just another day at the office.

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