My Story: Crocodile Encounter 2018
They say your life can flash before your eyes when you are in a life-or-death situation. That’s not what happened to me. It was just literal darkness (because I was scuba diving at night) and my inner voice clearly saying, “This can’t be happening” as I was being dragged away by my leg farther away from the dim lights of our production crew. My left calf was in the mouth of a 3 metre (10 ft) American crocodile.
The wildlife biologist in me knew what often happened in these scenarios: a person did not survive. I had never heard of someone being bitten while scuba diving, so this was new territory for me. “Whatever you do, do not move that leg.” If I moved too much the predator could bite down harder (making this an extremely painful situation to be in) or worse, roll. If it did either I would surely lose my calf or my leg. Or my life.
To be honest, I wasn’t certain it was a crocodile while everything was happening. I never saw the animal that had its jaws around my leg. But given the fact we were diving with one, I put two and two together. Plus, as we would later see, the wound was in the perfect shape of a crocodile jaw.
What felt like 5-10 seconds probably was much shorter time due to time feeling like it was slowing down. The first few seconds I clawed at the sand (making visibility worse) to see if I could latch onto a rock or something to keep from being dragged far away. Not worried about oxygen (because I was on a tank with enough air to last me a bit) or my mask being ripped off (I had a hard enough time taking it off- that thing was TIGHT around my noggin), I was able to keep some of my cool.
Blindly raking my fingers through the sand wasn’t fruitful so the next best thing was jamming my finger on the microphone button and hoping someone would hear me. My mask had been acting up and I wasn’t able to hear topside or my diving buddies. I just hoped they could hear me.
Just as I was wracking my brain to think of what else I could do, it let me go. No big fight, it released me and when I was certain I wasn’t about to be snapped at again, I filled my BCD with air and shot up to the surface. Safety stop be damned, getting the bends was the last thing on my mind. Due to the bite itself not hurting (it felt like hard pressure, but no actual pain), I didn’t know if I was bleeding, how much, or if I even had a leg still. I wasn’t about to chance it, and knew I needed to get any wounds looked at immediately. If a crocodile bite doesn’t kill you, an infection could. I won’t list all the bacteria you can find in their mouths, but know it is extensive and it isn’t pretty.
Surfacing, I didn’t know the confusion that awaited me. My crew had been looking for me, and I had popped up near one person, my dive buddy I had been with seconds before until he began to surface. They must have seen the terror in my eyes and I fumbled with the straps of my mask to take it off and wanted to scream, “I’ve been bit.” I didn’t scream and I don’t remember what I said. I don’t remember much.
I remember my buddy grabbing the back of my tank as he swam us closer to our crew. I remember seeing dive guides and camera men around me and at one point I think I had three people crowding around me. Everything was hazy and I remember looking up at the stars (we were in the middle of nowhere so they were shining brightly without light pollution) and then my medic’s eyes as he said, “You’re okay” to calm me down. We were both scared. We were all scared.
Getting dragged out of the water must’ve snapped me from my haze because I started telling anyone who would listen that it was just pressure - “It’s just an exploratory bite, it’s no big deal” - and it didn’t seem as if it had drawn blood. My suit still got ripped open to inspect the damage- three deep puncture wounds and the rest were manageable. It wasn’t until then that it kind of hit me what had almost happened; I wasn’t the biggest fan of the dark and to be dragged, underwater, in the dark was a nightmare I had never thought to be afraid of. My medic saw my eyes well up and said, “You’re okay.” I nodded and to lighten up the mood said, “I’m just upset about the new wet suit.” Everyone laughed, tension broken. “I’ll make it a shortie.” He chuckled. “On one leg?”
More painful than the bite was the process of cleaning the wounds. Being in the middle of nowhere meant we had to work with what we had. A high pressure hose and a combination of water/bleach made me cry out in pain and let of a string of curse words, but it worked because in the end I had minimal to no infection. What followed was a few tense nights, lots of dry-heaving from an unsettled stomach (and heavy duty antibiotics), an IV administered in the field (I hate needles), and talking about medivac options (eventually implementing one). I always thought my worst-case field scenario would be malfunctioning equipment or bad weather. This was beyond anything I could have come up with.
Months after the fact, my leg still hurts if I stand on it for too long, walk for too long, or squeeze it too hard. Repetitive stairs hurt after a while, but thankfully a bag brushing up against my leg no longer hurts. The bite marks have just recently closed all the way and the ugly purple scars are what remains to remind me of what happened. I actually came face-to-face with a saltwater crocodile recently in Malaysia... and while the large part of me was fascinated and in awe, a little part of me was right back in the dark inky water. Don't worry, it was in an enclosure and I walked away after I stared at it for as long as I could bear it. I did not have any nightmares that night.
I have yet to scuba dive again (not out of fear; planned to in Malaysia until conditions wouldn't allow it... oh well, will have to try when I go to the Great Barrier Reef soon). I can't wear heels yet because my leg feels like it is on fire after an hour or two, and I can't wear shorts without people staring. The dark still freaks me out, and I don't know when I'll go night-diving again.
My accident puts me in a unique position as both a "survivor" (though I don't like that term) and as a scientist who studies predators and knows them better than the average person. But even I definitely know more about crocodiles now than a few months ago, that's for sure! My keeping my leg still worked for this particular animal this particular time - had it acted differently (more aggressive), I would have fought back, as many experts say you should.
I wouldn't say I was afraid of crocodiles any more or less than I already was. I have always had the upmost respect for them and that has never wavered during this process. I respect them even more now, if anything, because I know what could have gone wrong-- and just how lucky I got.
"Was I afraid of death?" I get asked a lot. Strangely, no. While my first thought was, "This can't be happening" at no point during the incident did I think about death. And I still say that the scariest thing of that whole event was being dragged backwards into the darkness, not even the crocodile bite itself (I know, I'm weird) -- that's the fear you see etched on my face in any video. It was a nightmare I never dreamt of having.
We - my family and friends - are not ignorant to the fact this could have ended differently. At best, I could've lost a leg. At worst, my life. It's a risk we take any day, however, doing whatever it is we do in our lives. It's a risk I know I take whenever I wake up and walk out the door; it's a risk I know I take whenever I dive beneath the waves. It's a risk I happily take. Knowingly take. My parents hugged me extra hard when they saw me in the hospital and when my dad wheeled me to the airplane back to Australia.
Death itself? No... I'm not afraid of that. Whenever it's my time, it's my time. This time wasn't it. This time, I got very lucky. And the pain in my leg continues to remind me of that every day.
7/23/2018 11:40:24 pm
Great read!! I watched the show & agree your one lucky lady. Those gators/ Crocs are quicker than people can imagine & sneaky bastards. I can fell you for the dragging into the dark fear.. it’s that feeling of unknown.. & won’t return..
7/25/2018 01:16:36 pm
You are amazing--saw this and just had to tell you that your story and calmness are an inspiration. Your professionalism in the field researching is awesome. Fantastic storytelling and a narrow escape from something that could have been very bad indeed. Your medics were great to ensure you did not get an infection. Bien hecho! Rest and recover!
7/25/2018 01:34:27 pm
Melissa, was just thinking of your story and your wetsuit and the observation that perhaps the croc found the taste of your neoprene suit unpalatable and it got me thinking of developing a wetsuit with an inner lining that could secrete a liquid substance to leave a bad taste or repellent for the predator and to reject the diver on its test bites. Sharks as you know will bite this way too to test and perhaps a suit with an inner lining of fluid that would be released upon being bitten into may ward off a predator--like squid ink but with a bad taste? Don't know where this would go but a thought.
7/24/2018 12:16:02 pm
I'm really interested in your non-traditional path since I saw you in the shark week episode. Glad to hear you're OK and recovering from the bite.
7/24/2018 04:20:50 pm
I’m sorry, I have to interject here. You are making assumptions about a person you don’t know about and you should be ashamed. As a fellow scientist who is a woman you should be applauding her efforts to do science communication and research instead of tearing her down.
7/24/2018 05:15:32 pm
Thank you. <3
7/24/2018 05:31:50 pm
The basic definition of a scientist is actually "a person learned in science and especially natural science : a scientific investigator". Another is "A person who is studying or has expert knowledge of one or more of the natural or physical sciences." While they employ scientific methods, that's not the key property of their work. Setting up the scientific method as the be-all and end-all of who can call themselves a scientist is ridiculous.
7/24/2018 06:25:42 pm
To call someone "not a scientist" is not to diminish their work ethic or contributions to society. It is an acknowledgement of a privileged title that comes with active research and peer-reviewed publication - which Melissa is open about not having. Her research is not "easy to find". It's absent. That doesn't mean she isn't smart, capable, or anything else positive. By the definition I provided (which is pretty basic and not controversial among academics, anyway) I'm not a scientist, either. I'm OK with that. I'm less OK with people who are expert self-promoters and have a media kit prepared before they have proven themselves with a peer-reviewed publication. Am I showing my pettiness and jealousy of her success? Yes, in fact I am. But I've also walked the hard path of getting a PhD and it does mean something to earn one. I also had to face the music when I left academia and I don't self-identify as a scientist because I know people who do that work and I don't feel right using that title. It's my opinion and it's obviously not a popular one, but there you go.
7/24/2018 07:13:51 pm
I 1000% agree with Leilah and Elise here. Thank you for standing up for a woman who has clearly worked her ass off to get where she is- especially as a minority.
7/24/2018 08:02:09 pm
I'm SMDH right now at Katrina's insensitive and uncalled for comment. Who do you think you are?
7/25/2018 04:46:18 pm
Katrina, it appears to me that you are part of the problem and the reason people take a non-traditional path. I a Ph.D. candidate getting my degree in genetics and education. I am doing the grunt work, I am publishing my work, I am experiencing the peer-review process (in two fields!)... and dealing with science snobs that think you need to spend over 60 hours in the lab in order to be called a 'scientist'.
7/24/2018 07:59:33 pm
Non traditional pathways are NO less valid.
7/24/2018 08:27:39 pm
Melissa, ignore thtlis person. I know that's difficult, but remember, some people will try to put you down, while so many, vastly many more are cheering you on and singing your praises. Think of all the little girls, of color or not, all throughout the world who you have made an impact on. You've paid your dues, done your work. You have your degrees and are churning through paper after paper, attacking different approaches to learn more about your field and make the world a more complete, knowledgeable place in the process. You're changing lives because you are a LATINA SCIENTIST. You can and will continue to perform actual science like the BADASS LATINX MARINE BIOLOGIST that you are, while also performing communications and outreach. You're a scientist in the modern world, making it easier to understand and embrace the work of yourself and others. You. Are. A role model. You. Are. A SCIENTIST. And you Are An INSPIRATION
7/29/2018 05:52:24 am
Wow. You have an inflated self ego! Do you make your co-workers call you "Doctor" in the work setting?
7/24/2018 04:26:00 pm
This episode is wonderful. Seeing scientist interact without celebrities is how Shark Week should roll. I read somewhere you had worked with Tristan G. in Bimini, seemed like you guys worked well together.
7/24/2018 07:21:31 pm
wonderful episode melissa! you are a fantastic role model for all who watched you last night.
7/24/2018 07:39:29 pm
OK, so if you have diabetes and go to "Dr. Smith's" clinic, only to find out that person didn't graduate from medical school and have an M.D., would that be OK? Of course not. Even if they worked at a clinic for years and educated themselves about diabetes til the cows came home. Credentials matter to all of us. There are many marine biologists out there with long CV's of peer-reviewed research that deserve to be called on for their expertise. Melissa is taking up the space that in some sense belongs to those people. If she wants to call herself a "women in science advocate", great. But "scientist"? No. The system of peer-review is what we all depend on to preserve the quality of scientific information that is disseminated. It matters. Again, I don't discount her contributions to encouraging women and minority groups and children in science. But it's not the same thing as being a scientist. I don't think it will deter Melissa from her efforts, and of course it shouldn't. I wish her nothing but success. Critique from your peers is also a bedrock of science and I hoped my comments could be taken in that spirit. But if Melissa does go ahead and pay her dues by earning a PhD and/or publishing her work in a scientific journal, good on her.
7/24/2018 08:09:06 pm
"Pay her dues"? You're full of shit.
7/24/2018 08:12:35 pm
Katrina, who hurt you in life? LOL
7/24/2018 08:30:46 pm
Hold up. Melissa not having PhD being the reason she is not a scientist is an insult to anyone working in science who doesn’t have their doctorate. Some of the greatest scientist do not have a doctorate degree and no intention of getting one yet still do amazing work. Are they not scientists? Melissa is in the beginning of her career; she’s 24 (so says her blog, not sure if she is 25 now) and already accomplished more than most people WITH a doctorate. (Probably has accomplished more than you, Katrina.)
7/24/2018 08:07:18 pm
JUST SAW YOUR SHOW, MELISSA! YOU WERE JAW-SOME AS YOU LIKE TO SAY ON THE THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE!
7/24/2018 08:20:45 pm
“Critique from your peers” means you give constructive criticism Katrina and all you’ve done is spat out jealousy and a POV that no one agrees with. You have literally given no critique outside of “you aren’t a scientist” which isn’t a critique at all. Also you aren’t her peer because you said it yourself you aren’t a scientist! Were you even a marine biologist?
7/24/2018 08:44:06 pm
"I am not confident that the author understands the context of the material or has thoroughly reviewed the subject at hand."
7/24/2018 08:52:36 pm
Btw “previous” was autocorrected to “precious” and was not what I meant. Not that it matters, *sigh*. Clearly you all know what a scientist is more than I do, and I stand down. Once again, I so not wish Melissa any ill will and I’m sure she will continue to wow the general populace with her science-y science.
7/25/2018 10:11:50 pm
"I’m sure she will continue to wow the general populace with her science-y science."
7/24/2018 09:01:08 pm
You’ve never heard of a reviewer who is mean? Good Lord. She even said the second reviewer gave her constructive criticism and that she will be revising her article and resubmitting. For an ex-scientist you don’t know how to read!
7/24/2018 08:56:27 pm
Peace, everyone. - Sad Potatoe.
7/25/2018 04:46:25 am
Guess you did not see the backlash coming did you Katrina?
7/24/2018 09:31:10 pm
I think Katrina missed the important bits of Melissa's PhD blog post:
7/24/2018 09:41:24 pm
"Perhaps if she wasn’t surrounded only by cheerleaders she would have been able to critique and revise her own study in a satisfactory manner and get it published."
7/24/2018 09:48:41 pm
"Good Lord. Truly you are all proving that we need better education about the nature of science."
7/24/2018 10:31:11 pm
Was it a mistake to click tab to see other comments in this blog?? It’s become Katrina & The Waves.
7/24/2018 11:05:32 pm
I definitely think we should flood Melissa's blog with POSITIVE waves now. This young woman has been through a lot!
7/24/2018 11:04:55 pm
Wow, the comments on this are VILE. The majority of you have run far away from the point of THIS article, which is Melissa's harrowing experience with a crocodile that she overcame! Regardless of whether you find her a scientist or not (I am the former), we can all agree she went through a traumatic experience with a level head and cool confidence. I hope she is on more TV because she is a natural (good thing she has a media kit... loved it! I wonder if she does design work, too). Will be following your career!
7/25/2018 12:03:31 am
Watched your show Melissa and you handled this incident with grace and calm! WOAW! You are one strong woman!
7/25/2018 12:19:31 am
"There are many marine biologists out there with long CV's of peer-reviewed research that deserve to be called on for their expertise. Melissa is taking up the space that in some sense belongs to those people."
7/25/2018 07:16:28 am
MELISSA IS A SMART, WITTY, BAD-ASS WOMAN WHO I HOPE I'M LUCKY ENOUGH TO WORK WITH SOME DAY.
7/25/2018 10:47:07 am
7/26/2018 07:53:17 am
Thanks for your story, Melissa! I read your story on Jezebel and I am so happy to know about you!! The croc was just doing what he does best and it was a great learning experience for the both of you, I'll bet. But it was also beneficial for everyone for if we ever end up face to face with a crocodile, so thank you!!
7/29/2018 12:22:17 pm
I just started to replay through Tomb Raider: Underworld
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Hi! I'm Melissa, an Australian-based Latina science educator, podcaster, and freelance writer. I spend a lot more time on Instagram and Twitter, but blogging is my first love. Thanks for stopping by — I hope you stay a while.
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