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How not to spend your birthday.

My 49th birthday on the 23rd Feb 1996 was certainly one I won't forget in a hurry. I was attacked by a crocodile while diving on a fringing reef off Cape Flattery! Yes, you read that right, a croc between 3 and 4 metres long came up behind me and latched onto my foot while I was doing coral surveys in about 4-5 m of water on the outer edge of a reef about half a mile offshore.

The water was so dirty that at first I couldn't see what it was and thought that a grouper had grabbed me, but then he swam forward and I folded up over a large croc head with staring yellow eyes clamped across my foot. I must admit that in that moment, as he shook me around and I banged to and fro against his scaly side I thought that my last transect had been swum.

He propelled me up to the surface and I yelled at Avril, who was boat person, to bring the boat over (it was only about 25 metres away). I then made a conscious decision that I had to fight to get away (what else could you do apart from lie down and weep!). I grabbed the croc around the neck and started bashing his eyes with the sharp tip of my spare survey tape.

After a bit of this he took another bite and swam off down with me, with more shaking and rolling. In this confusion I lost my tape and ended up lying alongside the croc, so I grabbed him around the middle and punched his back (too hard) and then his belly. Nothing happened so I grabbed his front legs and wrenched them repeatedly up over his back as hard as I could in a sort of croc arm lock. After a bit of this he finally decided he'd bitten off more than he could chew, let me go, and departed in a great buffeting rush.

Avril meanwhile had seen me on the surface and had realised what was going on when she saw the croc's head holding onto my foot. Utterly horrified, she tried to get the boat as close as possible but we disappeared again. When I popped up free, the boat was only 10 metres or so away and I managed a very rapid exit indeed in spite of a mashed foot.

Then we had to get Warren (my buddy diver) out of the water. He had been nonchalantly waiting at the end of the transect and had no idea of all the drama, even though he had only been a few metres from me when the croc attacked. Eventually with much motor revving and banging he appeared and was exhorted to get into the boat with great haste. Rarely have I seen anyone move so fast - our faces must have told him it was urgent.

So then off back to Lizard Island which had been our base for this project, where they took great delight in cutting me out of my bootie and wetsuit (the first use of the special wetsuit removing scissors the lab has had for years!).

Although it was really sore, the foot didn't look too bad at this stage, only six torn puncture marks on the upper side of my foot, minimal bleeding and a bit of swelling. However, the flying doctor, consulted by radio, suggested a trip to Cairns Base Hospital. By the time of the flight a few hours later the pain had really set in and I was only too glad to go.

Later that night, after X-rays (broken metatarsals) and lots of ohs and ahs from nurses and doctors, they cut all the wounds open, joined the dots as the surgeon put it, cleaned them out and wrapped it up.

I then had to endure five days in hospital being pumped full of antibiotics while they waited to see if infection set in. All previous croc bites that are on record have become infected and taken months to heal in spite of antibiotic treatment. For some reason, maybe all the good vitamins and potions Avril fed me in hospital and since, the wounds remained clean and were sewn up with about 26 stitches about six days after the attack.

I then managed to persuade them to let me go home and I've now been lying around for a week healing. The wounds are healing well with no sign of infection and while I still have to walk with crutches, I'm sure a few weeks will see me more mobile.

Remarkably, the ragged punctures all missed the major nerves, arteries and tendons in my foot, in some cases by mere millimetres, and it doesn't look as if there will be any permanent damage. All in all I was extremely lucky, and have felt remarkable well mentally as well. I'll certainly remember that birthday!


- Tony Ayling, March 1997


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