Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday region, along with most of the north-east coast of Queensland, is home to many species of wildlife including the infamous and intimidating Saltwater Crocodile. Widely regarded as the most dangerous animal in Australia, the saltwater crocodile is renowned for its size, territorial aggression, and for the dozens of lives it has claimed over the past few decades. While the most dramatic of crocodile encounters often occur further north, (Darwin and the Northern Territory being the most common areas) the Saltwater Crocodile is known to inhabit the Whitsunday region and surrounding areas and sightings are not unusual.
Growing up to 6 metres in length and weighing up to 1000 kilograms, the Saltwater Crocodile has earned its fearsome reputation. While its regular diet consists of fish, birds and turtles, it has also been known to take larger prey such as wild pigs and buffalo and also livestock, including cattle and horses. This is achieved using an ambush method, where the crocodile waits, almost fully submerged by the water's edge. It then lunges from the water and uses its great jaws to latch onto the prey before dragging it back into the water. If the prey is not killed by the powerful impact of the crocodile's jaws, which can exert over 100 000 kilograms of pressure per square inch, it will be drowned as the crocodile tows it beneath the water.
Throughout Australia's history, there have been many recorded encounters between Saltwater Crocodiles and humans. A highly opportunistic predator, the crocodile has often treated humans who enter its territory as prey. Also, due to its strong territorial nature, the male crocodile, having reached maturity, will often attack humans, boats or anything else that encroaches upon its territory. Survival is unlikely if the crocodile is able to make contact with the human during these encounters and at least 1 to 2 deaths are reported in Australia every year. Despite this low figure, it is widely believed that most attacks in Australia go unreported due to their occurrence in extremely rural areas of the country, where communications are limited.
The relationship between the human and the saltwater crocodile is unusual. Where most species of animal, endangered or not, are approached with an attitude of co-existence and conservation, the general attitude towards the Saltwater Crocodile is to stay well away from it. While this is manageable in areas such as the Whitsundays and other coastal areas, it becomes harder in Australia's northern interior, as the Saltwater Crocodile increases in population and moves further inland. Habitat loss in these areas poses a serious issue, with much of the crocodile's freshwater nesting areas being converted to farmland.
Despite the crocodile's fearsome reputation, it continues to be a major tourism draw for the northern areas of Australia, with hundreds of domestic and international tourists paying a visit to the many crocodile farms, museums and tour operators that are scattered along the coast and interior of the country. Visitors to the Whitsundays can enjoy this experience as well, with tours leaving daily from the nearby town of Proserpine.
The Whitsunday region, with its wide estuaries and mix of salt, fresh and brackish water, is the perfect habitat for the Saltwater Crocodile. While sightings are very rarely reported around the islands themselves, sightings along the mainland are more common. The Proserpine River, which reaches the ocean just south of the Whitsundays, is a known habitat, and sightings have been recorded in other waterways and estuaries in the area. However, the Saltwater Crocodile poses little or no threat to the human population of the Whitsundays, with the areas it inhabits being sparsely populated, if at all and threatening encounters a very rare occurrence.