Have you ever felt like you were in the belly of the beast? Well I sure have and got to actually experience it on a recent expedition to Tanzania. I’m a scientist who’s research involves capturing wild crocodiles, a very dangerous pursuit, dangerous for me but also dangerous for the crocs. Subduing crocodiles is extremely stressful to the animal, so I am always looking for alternatives to this “hands-on” approach. Not long ago I was speaking to a group of children and explaining to them what I do and one small boy raised his hand and said, “Dr. Brady why don’t you dress up as a crocodile and just join their club?” I laughed and continued my lecture, yet couldn’t shake this crazy idea form the back of my mind. Could it actually work? There was only one way to find out.
I had the engineers at National Geographic build me an incredibly life-like crocodile disguise, for my venture into the reptilian world. The “croc suit” consisted of a protective metal cage covered by a Kevlar shield, and topped off with a life like latex cape. It really looked like a croc and it better because the plan was for me to wear the suit and crawl up to a group of basking wild crocs, close enough to attach a scientific device to their backs! This is a procedure that normally requires me to rope a croc and then wrestle it in into submission. This was a bold and scary experiment.
A few months later on a stifling hot African day, I found myself in the country of Tanzania with a fellow scientist, a bunch of big wild crocs, and of course the “croc suit”. Today was the big day…deployment day. The temperature was well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, as I started to contort my body into the tight confines of the suit. The thermometer I had mounted inside the suit read 120 degrees; I might cook in this oven if this procedure took too long. My heart raced as I thought about the large number of dangerous crocs a short distance away, as well as the gauntlet of hippos (Africa’s most dangerous animal) that I would have to navigate before I even got to the crocs. Once inside the suit a wave of claustrophobia and nausea gripped me. It was a very tight fit inside, and the apparatus was heavy at over 80 pounds.
I was super nervous as the crew left me all alone, and I started my 60 meter crawl to the basking crocs. An immediate concern was that I could only see straight ahead, I had no idea what dangers might be approaching from my behind me. I was in radio contact with my crew but that seemed like little comfort. As I approached the first croc was heart was pounding, my mouth was dry and my body tense, yet my senses seemed razor sharp, keener than they had ever been before. I held my breath and inched closer not knowing what to expect. The crocodile was now directly in front of me and is had its gaze transfixed on me. I had never seen a croc from this vantage point, and boy did it look big. Seeing it on their level, the animal was simply beautiful in an awe inspiring primeval way. Within arms length the big croc just stared back at me then calmly closed its eyes. Wow, a huge sigh of relief escaped my body, because this was a sure sign that the animal was comfortable with my presence.
It was simply amazing that I was within 3 feet of a wild unrestrained croc and that it was accepting me as another croc. I got caught up in the special ness of the moment, realizing that I was doing something that had never been done before, when suddenly I was jolted back to the seriousness of the task at hand. My cameraman radioed to me that there was a large croc moving towards me from behind. Once again my heart raced and I held my breath expecting the worst, all the while wondering if my little croc suit could withstand an attack from a half ton reptilian giant.
The seconds seemed like an eternity as I waited for the big croc. I could now hear his heavy feet and lumbering body as he got closer. The attacked I feared never came; instead he sidled up beside me and lay down. He too was accepting me as just another croc. I definitely wanted to make history on this day not become history, so I quickly deployed my data logger onto the back of the croc in front of me and made a hasty retreat. As I crawled away I was lost in the euphoria of my successful experiment. On this day I literally became a crocodile, the animal I have dedicated my career to studying.