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At CI, we’re dedicated to the protection of all life on Earth, recognizing that all species play a role in the healthy ecosystems that sustain us. However, even we’ll admit that some of them are less … cuddly … than others. With Halloween upon us, we recently asked CI scientists to recollect on some of their most harrowing wildlife encounters. Here is cephalopod expert Christine Huffard’s story.
The scariest things in the ocean are the things you don’t see … but you know they’re there. When I surf in California, it’s the ‘man in grey’ who needs no introduction. Exploring tidepools at night looking for new species of tropical octopus, I fear the stonefish — an ugly mug that buries into sand and shows only a scowl to warn of its deadly venomous dorsal spines, begging to be stepped on.
But hands down nothing beats the saltie — the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) — which at up to 7 meters (more than 22 feet) is the largest living reptile on the planet. Many years ago before a night dive in Indonesia’s Banggai Islands, we saw a crocodile’s eyes shining back at us from the mangroves, and I didn’t ever want to get that close again.
Truth be told, as much as we love them and will fight to protect their home, crocs scare the living daylights out of every single one of us working in Indonesia’s Bird’s Head Seascape. I work with a strong monitoring team to evaluate the health of marine ecosystems. Whether mapping fishing activities from the air in the open cockpit of an ultralight airplane or counting grouper at a spawning site, we quantify and communicate the state of the oceans in village roundtables, government meetings, and other local outlets. Most of our team members have grown up in the Bird’s Head and previously worked as fishermen; they are applying their life experiences and local knowledge to protecting their family’s food sources and the world’s center of marine biodiversity.
Our team’s insider know-how also protects us from crocodiles. We design our dive plan to steer well clear of their favorite haunts and feeding times — usually anyway. (Mom and Dad — you can stop reading here.)
Until a few years ago, when an aggressive, one-eyed 4-meter (13-foot) croc was spotted smack dab on top of a temperature logger site — and, within a year of that sighting, we needed to retrieve those data. As part of a long-running study, temperature loggers are spaced all over the Bird’s Head Seascape, showing that the corals in the area are surviving — and sometimes thriving — in temperatures once thought to be deadly. Each logger tells a different story, and this one had been recording the fluctuations of an especially unique habitat. In other words, we needed that temperature logger, croc or no croc.
Our team did all we could to reduce the likelihood of an encounter. We dived at noon, in tidal conditions during which crocs should be resting and not feeding. We revved the engine, made lots of noise, and signaled our presence in every way we could; crocs are actually very shy, often fleeing from human voices. Our task was to take only three minutes tops — hop in the water, remove the logger, surface safely, and get the heck out of there. Underwater I kept the rotating lookout, armed with a big dive knife and a long fish spear. At my back my buddy reached his hand into the dark cave to get the logger.
Our eyes were bigger than our masks and we probably each sucked down half a tank of air in those three minutes. Luckily we were fine, we got the temperature logger, and we didn’t see ol’ one-eyed jack. But more importantly, it seems like he didn’t see us.
Despite the fear they inspire, one of my favorite aspects of working in the Bird’s Head Seascape is that the crocs are still there to guard their turf, which includes some of the most species-rich marine ecosystems on the planet. In most places throughout Southeast Asia crocodiles have been hunted to local extinction for their meat or skins — or out of fear.
The Bird’s Head is still wild, and it honestly wouldn’t shock me if I came upon a dinosaur in the forest one day. Even if that fantasy can’t happen, we can protect the dinosaurs’ descendents — the hair-raising crocs, the flocks of pterodactyl-like hornbills and the globe-trotting sea turtles — to pay homage to our common past, critical present and vibrant future together.
Christine Huffard is the science and monitoring advisor for CI-Indonesia’s marine program in the Bird’s Head Seascape.