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.
This isn't your average blog. THINK OF IT LIKE THE BRITISH LIBRARY, EXCEPT WAY SASSIER.
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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