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 predatory 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.
"Salties" or saltwater crocodiles are known to grow up to 5 metres long, with the longest on record coming in at 7 metres in length. They can weigh thousands of kilograms, of which they use to hunt their prey and take it down. Their size and amazing hunting abilities have earned them a fearsome reputation not only in Australia, but all over the world. This prehistoric looking animal feeds on fish, birds and turtles, but have been known to take down larger prey such as livestock, pigs, and even people on occasion. They hunt using an ambush method whereupon they wait in the shallows, almost fully submerged in the water. They wait for their prey to venture close to shore or even to enter the water, where they lunge and latch onto their prey using their powerful jaws before dragging it back into the water. Their jaws have a bite power of up to 100 000 kilograms of pressure per inch, meaning often times their prey is killed on impact, but if not, these amazing animals will tow their meal underwater to drown it before they eat it.
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 to assert its dominance and maintain its territory. Unfortunately for humans who are blindsided by a saltie, survival is unlikely if the crocodile is able to make contact with during these encounters. There are at least 1 or 2 deaths reported in Australia every year, with many more non-fatal incidences occurring.
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 due to the potential for harm or human endangerment. While this is manageable in areas such as the Whitsundays and other coastal areas, it becomes harder in Australia's northern interior as the population of saltwater crocodiles increases and moved further inland, causing them to interact with humans more often. 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, where you will encounter the largest concentration of saltwater crocodiles in Queensland.
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.