White sands, turquoise blue seas, lush greenery — it is everyone's dream destination, even if some don't know it yet. And it isn't the South Pacific or the Caribbean; it is India's own Havelock Island of the Andamans.
It was late evening on April 28 when Rom received a frantic call from Havelock. A man, Jito Chadha, an Indian-American who had gone snorkelling with his girlfriend, Lauren that afternoon had returned alone with a horrific story. He said that while he was underwater, filming a moray eel at Neil's Cove, he heard Lauren scream. He looked up and saw her in the jaws of a large salt water crocodile (saltie), he said was “about 12 feet long”. Jito said he grabbed the croc by the tail, hoping to rescue Lauren. When that didn't work, he tried to pry the animal's jaws open to no avail. Jito had to surface to breathe when the saltie carried the girl away by swimming along the bottom of the sea.
Crocs are known to swim away with their prey on the surface of the water, not carry them underwater. Besides, Neil's Cove is along Beach No. 7, the most popular beach in the Andamans, and nobody had ever seen a crocodile there before. The closest known population of these reptiles was across the sea at Baratang in Middle Straits, 14 km to the west. There were no mangroves in the vicinity of the incident and salties are not known to brazenly attack in open waters. The more we thought about it, the more improbable the story seemed.
Samit, who runs the resort, wanted to know if the story was plausible. Highly unlikely, replied Rom and Australian experts echoed that prognosis. Nobody in Havelock believed Jito's tale, but where was the girl? Nor was there any sign of the camera, snorkelling gear, flippers, nothing. The resort launched a massive manhunt; divers combed the area for clues.
Luckily for Jito, almost 48 hours later, they found the camera resting on the sea floor. Another stroke of luck was that just 20 seconds prior to the attack, the young man had switched on the camera's video function. As it sank to the bottom of the sea, it recorded snatches of the terrible action playing out near the surface. And it clearly showed the sequence of events that Jito had been repeating to the police and to anyone who would listen, without any alteration for the previous two days.
Soon after, a search party found both the croc and the body of the girl, about 3 km away. Beaches in Havelock were closed to the public and efforts made to trap the saltie. Over a month later, in the early hours of June 1, the four-metre-long saltie was trapped nine km from the site of the fatal attack. By the end of the day, he was moved to the Haddo Zoo in Port Blair.
But how did a saltie brave the open ocean to get to Havelock in the first place? During the 1600s, now-extinct crocs were found in the distant Seychelles and because of the islands' proximity to Africa, were thought to be Nile crocodiles. However, scientists who've examined the preserved skulls say that salties ruled the roost here, about 2,700 km away from the closest population in Sri Lanka. Over the years, they have shown up in such far flung oceanic islands as the Maldives and the Ryukyu islands of Japan while breeding populations exist on several islands of Micronesia and Melanesia in the Pacific Ocean.
Research published earlier this month shows that it is the surface currents that make salties such accomplished ocean-farers. Some are known to plan their journeys, and if the currents are unfavourable, will wait on shore until the tide changes. However, we'll never know the swim-path of the Havelock croc.
(A fortnightly column about life on the edge of the jungle with Rom Whitaker. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)