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On the 26th we woke up at 4:45, quite late for a 5AM departure. A man who had served in the Guatemalan navy warned us as we left that there are big crocodiles in the canal. He told us to be careful as they can be aggressive and they have been known to attack canoes. As we started paddling out across the Rio Dulce with a dark threatening sky moving just above us, I felt anxious. Those serious words from the man kept repeating themselves in the back of my mind. Be cautious with the crocodiles. Normally only motorized wooden canoes go through the canal. I started questioning my route planning and thought maybe we should go around the point as I had originally planned, but then I figured that I would have to face my fear of crocodiles sooner or later. The storm passed without breaking on us. After paddling for four hours we covered the 14 miles across the bay to Graciosa. The current, which gave us such hard time when we paddled from Belize, made our day very easy.
In Graciosa we only found a few thatch houses with beautiful thatched decks over the water. We set our mosquito nets for the night and spent the day resting in the shade. People were friendly and brought us mangos. I climbed a coconut tree and got us some delicious green coconuts. We bought some tortillas and asked the locals about the direction to the canals and the crocodiles. They confirmed what we were told. Large crocodiles live in the canal, especially at the mouth. On the other hand they said that the crocs were not aggressive. My thoughts were: "Sure not aggressive to a wooden boat coming full speed with an engine. But were in narrow unstable, fabric kayaks, touching the water and we cant out-paddle a crocodile who might decide we would make a good snack." I fell asleep with crocodiles haunting my thoughts.
Among all animals, crocodiles scare me the most. I freedive with sharks, I pet tarantulas, catch snakes, play with scorpions, and I want to pet lions and tigers, but Ive always been afraid of crocodiles. For the first time tonight I remembered that when I was a kid, the only nightmares that woke me up were when I was being eaten by a giant crocodile. Today I dont believe in nightmares, but thinking of facing a crocodile in the water remains something I have a hard time with. I just dont see how one could fend off a charging crocodile. Sharks arent brave, snakes and tarantulas are usually not aggressive, but crocodiles seemed to be the most efficient killing machines. I remembered seeing documentaries in Africa where large animals would jump out of the water and quickly kill animals as powerful as a buffalo. They can run faster than Carl Lewis, they swim much faster than we can paddle and they can jump much higher than we could climb a tree in a few seconds. Crocodiles in some ways remain my nightmares.
On the 27th, we had a late start. People told us it would only take an hour or an hour and a half to paddle to the canal and then the rest would be in the shade. Knowing that crocs feed mostly at night, dusk, or dawn, we decided on a later start even though it would be much warmer.
Luke and I talked about our strategies to fend off aggressive crocodiles and help each other if attacked. We put our spearguns on deck with the tips unscrewed. Those blunt ended spear shafts would be to fend off the aggressor and if really attacked would be used in the eyes. We also put on deck our machetes as a last resort. I also pulled out the flare gun. First we would try a flare, a questionable tactic as they had gotten damp a few times in the past year. The next step would be to push them off with our paddles, then would come the spear guns and as a last resort the machetes and diving knife. We would defend our lives ferociously. We knew that there would be no danger as long as crocodiles remained sleeping on shore, but if they entered the water, our first course of action would be to paddle together as fast as possible. If one of us lagged behind, the other one would wait and together we would face them.
When we left at 7:30 the sun was already high and the temperature hot. After an hour and half of paddling under the heat across a small bay and into a small lagoon, we found the entrance of the canal. It was like a stream with trunks blocking most of the river that forced us to duck. In many places trees which had fallen in the water had been cut with a chainsaw. The river swirled around like a snake and got narrower and narrower. We armed our flaregun, and spearguns. I was paddling first looking everywhere to anticipate a sudden attack. Luke was following so close behind me he was ramming me each time I stopped paddling. I was facing my phobia and I think that I dragged Luke into it as well.
As the river got narrower, suddenly lots of splashing happened just in front of me. It spooked us. We thought maybe small crocs were feeding on fish. All we could see was the water being strongly agitated, and then everything returned to a silence which felt almost too heavy. We quickly paddled through the water that had been agitated. A minute later, it happened again behind Luke, then in front of me, then on the side. We were looking all around but just couldn't see anything. Later we were able to clearly identify schools of fish. Reassured, we felt safer at least for the time being.
As we paddled more, the fish disappeared and we squeezed through narrow channels in floating carpets of thick grass and roots. It was narrow enough that we couldn't put our paddles in the water. We had to push on the grass which slowly sank under the pressure of our paddles. The river kept snaking its way through the swamp, sometimes opening to a few feet wide, sometimes narrowing to where only a few inches of clearance for the kayaks remained. Fruit trees I had never seen before hung over the water with large brown fruit pods. Wild orchids grew on the riverbanks. Egrets were easily approached in our silent kayaks. This river was beautiful.
We were lost in nature away from all civilization until suddenly we heard an outboard motor roaring. We pulled out to the side just before one of those narrow channels through the floating grass. The motor canoe cut through. The grass spread out a little to let the canoe through, then eased back over the water. We saw 3 canoes going through during our crossing. Without daily traffic keeping these channels clear, we probably couldn't paddle through this dense floating vegetation. The presence of the motor boats reassured us. For the few minutes after their passage there would be no risk of seeing any crocs in the water.
The shade we had been promised wasn't always there. From 10 AM we started to suffer a lot from the sun and heat. Around 11:30 we pulled out at the first place with hard soil, an abandoned settlement where we were instantly attacked by clouds of mosquitoes and sandflies. That's when the third canoe went by. We stopped him and asked him how much longer it was to the ocean. He reassured us we were close. He left and then came back to tell us to take the left branch of the river. The right one goes back into the mountains. We paddled and found the Y in the river. It's good he told us because there was no current and the main branch seemed to be the right one.
As we paddled a little more we started hearing the waves. I put the flare gun back into its dry box and secured the speargun better on deck. We were told the waves were very big and that most of the large crocodiles lived at the mouth of the river. Anxiously we put on our sprayskirts hoping not to capsize in the middle of crocodile-infested water. A second branch appeared, we took the left one guided by the sound of the waves.
The ocean appeared in front of us with a sandy spit ahead protecting us from the waves. No crocs in sight we decided to pull out on the sand spit to check the waves. As we paddled closer we saw the few thatch houses which make up the settlement of San Francisco. We had arrived after 5 hours of paddling in the heat through the English canal.
The waves didn't seem very big. We swam in the ocean, happy to be back in the waves for the first time since Baja. Locals were friendly and let us camp on their beach. They told us that because of the daily motor boats, crocodiles only come out at night. Even the kids bathed in the river there. They told us that Montagua River at the border of Honduras also had crocodiles but it wasn't a problem because the regular boats kept them away. On the other hand in smaller rivers where boats rarely go, the beasts are considered very aggressive and dangerous. People asked us where we were going. When we told them they looked at our kayaks and said: "In the morning the waves are much bigger, you won't be able to get through with these". We thought: No problem, we prefer the waves to the crocodiles or armed bandits.
You are trekking through a tropical jungle. The heat and humidity combine to produce drops of salty sweat that sting your eyes while mosquitoes bite every piece of exposed flesh you thought you had protected. This is the lush green hell described by so many explorers. You've made it this far into the wilderness, and you're determined that nothing will make you turn back. That is until you reach a river too wide to throw a tree over and you have no choice but to wade across it. With your backpack over your head, you start walking into it. When you are chest deep, large splashes behind you attract your attention. As you turn and look back, you see nothing but troubled, murky water. Already you fear for your life, knowing that it is most likely a crocodile. If you don't, you have more nerve than most.
During our exploration of the Central American Rainforests by sea kayak, we have had to paddle and camp in places inhabited by crocodiles and alligators. Warnings from locals were common place, and for days my fear greatly affected my mental state (read: "My Fear of Crocodiles").
The next stage of our expedition through the jungles of La Moskitia in Honduras and Nicaragua would expose us to even more of these saurians. I knew I had to learn to overcome my fear of crocodiles. Taking a break from the Central America Sea Kayak Expedition, I flew to the Brazilian Pantanal in order to learn how the local people live with these creatures. In the Pantanal there are so many alligators, one can never swim without being in the same water with them. With my guide Paulo, I learned how to catch alligators, an experience that deepened my understanding and, perhaps most importantly, bolstered my confidence.
Driving 120 miles through the world's largest wetland, we crossed large cattle ranches and observed much wildlife. The nature reserve here is most famous for its variety of birds, and the first day was enough to understand why. In a few hours I saw large jabiru storks, vultures, hawks, toucans, macaws, parakeets, egrets, and even rheas, a cousin of the ostrich, which ran away with the deer as the car approached. Howler monkeys hung in trees and coatimundis, armadillos, foxes, wild pigs, and kapibaras (pig size rodents) crossed the road in front of us. I felt like I was on an African safari, the only difference being the vast herds of cows and hundreds of horses.
The atmosphere reminded me of an old Wild West movie. My guide explained that although the Pantanal is a nature reserve, all of it is cattle farming land. Rich owners hire poor farmers to keep part of their land. I was surprised to see a six year old boy riding a horse fully loaded with lassos and bags accompanying two cowboys. My guide pointed his finger to him and said, "That was me as a kid." Paulo's father was a Duruvao Indian from Hauta Foresta, a region of the Amazon. His mother was from Corumba, the main town on the border of the Pantanal. He grew up as a cowboy, his school the wild fields of the Pantanal.
He explained that in the Pantanal people know nature well, and can catch most animals by hand. The elders come from a generation that hunted alligators, armadillos, deer and wild pigs for their meat. Alligators also proved valuable for their leather. Today the only animals hunted are the wild boars for they destroy all the agriculture. Sons of hunters have become the eco-tour guides of the reserve. They catch the most unique animals for the pleasure of tourists and after a few photos release them unharmed back into the wilderness.
During my travels with Paulo I saw hundreds of alligators. They seem to live in every small pool of water, in every ditch, swamp, and river. As the Pantanal is composed entirely of this kind of landscape, they are everywhere. My guide assured me that it was safe to swim in the rivers, all the locals do it, despite the fact that all rivers contain alligators. I learned later that jacare, the Pantanal alligators, mainly feed on piranhas.
Paulo took me for a few morning and evening walks to observe the wildlife. I was fascinated by these large reptiles who seemed completely asleep on the banks of the rivers, but I was never able to come close enough for the photos I wanted to take. Each time they saw me coming they were in the water with a large splash, and quickly out of sight. Paulo informed me that they have only one highly developed sense on land, amazing vision. As a result, they are extremely sensitive to movement. I wondered how we could come close enough to ever catch any. Paulo looked at me and said with much confidence, "Don't worry, we are going to catch alligators."
One day, on our way to a new camp, we stopped our truck in front of a large pool of water. Before attempting to cross it, Paulo went to check its depth and bottom consistency. Barefoot he walked knee deep into a mixture of floating vegetation and murky water. A big splash caught my attention and Paulo was already looking for the alligator which dove into hiding. Sighting it hidden under the vegetation in a few inches of water, he moved toward it like a cat, slowly placing one foot on each side of the animal. Suddenly, he jumped forward, his hands plunging toward the floating vegetation. In a few seconds he lifted a four to five foot long alligator, holding it by its neck.
He walked toward me with a smile and asked, "Do you want to hold it?" "Yes," I answered. "But just a minute. I've run out of film, and if I don't load a new roll and immortalize this, nobody will believe me." I wrapped my hands around the neck of the alligator and held it up with pride and a little bit of anxiety. The powerful jaw was armed with razor sharp teeth. "As long as you keep a good pressure on the neck, the alligator can't open its mouth," Paulo assured me. "Because you hold it in front of you in the air, it can't whip you with its tail. There is no problem, as long as you hold it with your two hands very close to its skull, it's harmless." In spite of my guide's faith, I still worried that the alligator would jerk around and, if my grip relaxed, even only slightly, my arm might be its next lunch. My purpose, however, was to fight my fear. So I continued to hold it in my hands. After a few seconds it looked so harmless I felt ashamed of my exaggerated fear. When we released it close to the water, the alligator stayed still for a few seconds and I managed to take a couple of photos. Then it ran a few steps toward me as I was taking a close up shot of it's head. I jumped back surprised, and it changed direction to quickly disappear into the water.
Paulo described to me his catching technique, "Don't come to the side of the crocodile. If you do, you get bitten. Walk slowly from behind, put one leg on each side of its body and jump with your hands on its neck. Make sure you keep a good grip just behind the head where the skin is the softest. Press it against the bottom to immobilize it. As you do so, your legs need to be spread apart, and in a position higher on its torso in front of its posterior legs to avoid the powerful and sharp whipping tail. Once immobilized, if it's small enough, you quickly lift it up in front of you."
I was impressed by Paulo, who walked barefoot through the floating vegetation in the murky water full of alligators and piranhas. For him it was natural, but I couldn't forget all my preconceived ideas. It would take a few more encounters for me to lose my fear.
The technique for catching the larger alligators is different. They have so much power it isn't possible to immobilize them against the ground or the bottom of the swamp. With their tails they can lash you and escape from your grip. It would be dangerous to even try to catch them by hand. So Paulo showed me how to use a noose tied to a stick.
I asked Paulo if he ever had a problem with alligators, as he seems to always walk barefoot in the middle of swamps. He answered no, but a day later, I noticed scars on his leg. Clearly the marks were left by teeth. When I questioned him again he responded, "Once, a large alligator caught my leg, but you see, it didn't destroy it." I asked, "What did you do?" He answered, "Nothing." "What do you mean nothing?" I said incredulously. "Can't you do anything if you're being bitten by an alligator?" He explained that the best thing to do is not to move. Alligators don't have any sense of taste. They bite anything that moves in front of them, sometimes even branches. Once closed, nothing can make them open their jaws. They will only release their hold if they think they have mistakenly bitten a branch or something non-edible. If you move your leg, the flesh will be ripped apart. If you try to wrestle the alligator, the same thing will happen. It is better to stay still and take the pain until the alligator releases you than to try anything else. This is what Paulo did, and the scars of the teeth on his leg are very clean. He didn't suffer any complications from his injury. His explanation left me thinking. Not having grown up in the Pantanal I might not posses the same level of pain tolerance as Paulo. If caught, would I be able to stay still? I can only hope my question will remain unanswered.
One morning, we sighted a large alligator on the bank of a small pool of water. As usual, it dove instantly at our approach, and disappeared in the depths of the green muddy pool. Paulo said, "It's a big one, we can catch it. Stay here, I'll go get a rope." He came back with the rope and made a lasso. The alligator had stayed submerged and hidden in the aquatic vegetation. With a long stick, Paulo started to poke around in the water. The alligator seemed to have disappeared. Paulo stepped knee deep into the pool and kept poking here and there with his stick. Suddenly coming out of nowhere, a giant jaw broke the surface of the water with a fast snapping movement. The beast surfaced and showed the tip of its nose. Paulo turned his lasso in the air and threw it just next to it. On the second try, the lasso made it over the alligator's head, but still not around it yet. With the long stick, he poked the alligator who bit into the open noose of the lasso. Paulo pulled it tight and quickly moved toward the shore and said, "Take it, it's yours!" "What?" "Take it!"
I took the rope and started pulling, but as soon as the alligator touched the bottom, it gave a fight with its tail and pulled back. "Pull it strongly but slowly" said Paulo. I did and forced it out of the water. Once on firm ground, alligators are much slower and more vulnerable. While I held the rope tight, my guide went around and wrapped a double loop around the dangerous jaw. Then he grabbed its posterior leg, lifted the gator up and said, "It's a big male, about 220 lbs. and eight and half feet long."
I noticed some scars on its back and asked. "Fight with another Jacare?" During the driest month, many alligators share very small water pools and often fight. It surprised me to learn that mature alligators didn't count humans as their only predators. Large anacondas feed on them, but they don't always win the fight. As well, Paulo told me that jaguars can attack small adults and juveniles.
My week in the Pantanal with Paulo was enlightening. I learned much about its wildlife and particularly about alligators. I realized that they fear people much more than we fear them. Unlike their cousins in Australia or Africa, they don't prey on humans and accidents are rare and usually due to a defensive reaction during a surprise encounter. The 21hour bus ride back to Sao Paulo was filled with memories of hundreds of alligators and thousands of tropical birds. The Pantanal did me good: I am now ready to paddle the jungle rivers of La Moskitia with much more confidence. Twelve months in the jungle with the Miskitos and Pech Indians in Honduras and Nicaragua await me and my expedition partner Luke. The biggest danger won't be alligators, but mosquitoes, humans and our own minds.
Jean-Philippe and Luke are on a 3 year and 5000 mile sea kayak expedition from Mexico to Panama to document the lifestyles and cultures of the last Indigenous tribes and their marine and rainforest habitats. You can follow them online at www.caske2000.org
If you liked these stories, you will find many more in our other journals:
CASKE 2000 Expedition Journals by Jean-Philippe Soule and Luke Shullenberger