In the late 1970s, a crocodile named Sweetheart ran amuck in a river just outside Darwin, and became a local legend.
Saltwater crocodiles are a durable, and sometimes dangerous, amphibious reptile.
It is commonly thought they were contemporaries of the dinosaurs, although this is not exactly correct. It is more accurate to say that earlier, now extinct, species of crocodile lived alongside the dinosaurs.
The earliest fossils from the family ‘Crocodilia’ are about 200 million years old, dating from the Triassic Period.
These ancient specimens were larger, and somewhat different. It is estimated the biggest would have been about 40 feet long, and were often more upright, with longer legs.
In other ways they were similar to modern species, which evolved about 25 million years ago, with long snouts, scaly skin, and a strong tail.
The saltwater croc is an imposing animal, larger and more aggressive than its freshwater cousin.
Salty’s are a common and widespread species, found across India, southeast Asia, and northern Australia. They live near water, either along the coast, or in tidal rivers and creeks.
Crocodiles are long-lived, with lifespans up to 70 years. They are also huge. Specimens more than six metres in length, and weighing more than a tonne, have been recorded.
They are opportunistic hunters, and will prey on any sufficiently large animal, including fish, birds and livestock.
Attacks on humans are not uncommon, and these are sometimes fatal. Although this is not solely down to predatory instinct. Crocodiles are fiercely territorial, and will defend their turf.
In Australia, across north Queensland and the Northern Territory, signs warning of crocodile attack are common. Locals will readily advise: which beaches and creeks are safe, and which ones are not.
About sixty kilometres southwest of Darwin, the Finniss River winds its way through the outback floodplains, out to the Arafura Sea.
It is a popular spot; a picturesque, thriving ecosystem, home to many species of aquatic and bird life, well utilised by local fisherman.
The Finniss River Cattle Company has a station nearby, and the traditional owners of the land are the Kungarakan, Warai and Maranunggu peoples, who use it for fishing and hunting.
Outside of the rainy season the river is sluggish, the water pooling in a series of a swampy billabongs. It is a perfect habitat for crocodiles, which are common along the river.
In the late 1960s, a giant croc was spotted in the Finniss. A worker at the Finniss River Station had the first recorded encounter:
‘I used to ride the river to check the fences, and I came across this hell of a big croc, 16 to 18 feet I’d guess.
He had just bit a cow and broke her hip, and had her down in the water. He just lay there, looking at me.
When I came back several hours later, the cow was gone.’
– Lee Reborse, cattlehand, Finniss River Station
The station’s cows became a regular target for the big croc.
Horses were not safe either. Reborse saw the same croc take a horse and ‘rip its guts out’, another station hand claimed it killed ‘maybe 15 or 20’ horses, over the years.
Word went round that there was a particularly large croc in one section of the river. It hung around near ‘Sweet’s Lookout’, a billabong which would give it, its name.
People called it: Sweetheart.
On September 14, 1975, Boyne Litchfield went fishing on the Finniss River with his son, and a family friend.
Litchfield was something of a legend in the Territory; a rugged, fearless outdoorsman, who had been a professional croc hunter since the 1930s.
The day was oppressive. It was hot, humid, with banks of thick cloud, and the occasional flash of lightning, portending a storm later on.
What happened next, was like a scene straight out of the movie ‘Jaws’ (released the same year):
‘Suddenly there is a loud crash, as something huge strikes the boat. The dinghy rocks crazily, almost capsizing.
A grotesque snout appears over the boat’s stern.
“Crocodile!” screams the man.
The croc hits the boat again, sending the man flying, and crashing on his back. The others catch hold of the seats, and hold on for dear life.
The croc proceeds to shake the boat, much like a terrier shakes a rat.’
– Col Stringer, ‘The Saga of Sweetheart’
The man mentioned above was Litchfield, who quickly regathered himself and started the boat’s outboard motor. Sweetheart now attacked it: grabbing the propeller in his huge jaws, and mangling it out of shape.
The croc then swung around to the side of the boat, and pressed it from underneath, seemingly trying to turn it over. Water poured over the dinghy’s side.
And then: just as quickly as it started, the attack was over. Sweetheart submerged beneath the water’s murky surface, and disappeared from sight.
The encounter lasted about 60 seconds.
Other attacks would follow.
The following year, 1976, police officer Ken Phillips was out fishing with his two young sons when his boat was attacked. Again, Sweetheart went for the outboard, before trying to tip the boat over.
‘Suddenly, the big croc zoomed right in on us, from underneath. He started to lift the boat right out of the water!
The croc lifted his head and there he was, right alongside. He was close enough for me to reach out and touch him.
He was huge. It was scary.’
– Ken Phillips
Phillips and his family escaped unharmed.
Around the same time, Litchfield was attacked again, on another fishing trip.
This time Sweetheart chomped down on the boat’s frame, and was strong enough to punch several holes, right through the metal.
After the attack, Litchfield and his fishing buddy got the boat to shore, and had to plug the holes with bark, so the dinghy would stay afloat. Sweetheart had disabled the motor, so the two then had to paddle back to their camp.
They spent an anxious night, worried the croc would return. They left campfires burning when they went to sleep, to try and ward him off.
Between 1975 and 1978, Sweetheart attacked around 20 boats.
The exact number is not known, and may be higher. Some locals were reluctant to report the attacks, feeling embarrassed that they had been caught unawares by the croc.
The incidents that were reported, were dramatic.
In September 1978, Sweetheart attacked another fishing dinghy. He again punctured the hull with his teeth, this time he also bit the outboard motor in two, and swallowed the fuel tank. The two terrified fisherman on board used their esky lid to paddle to shore.
The boat subsequently sank.
A few weeks later, Sweetheart struck again. This time he swum under a fishing dinghy and rose suddenly, another of his old tricks, causing it to capsize. The two fisherman on board went into the river, and had a terrifying 30 metre swim to shore.
Despite the growing regularity of the attacks, it is pertinent that none of the people involved were injured. Sweetheart seemed to take particular exception to the boats, themselves.
‘I believe the croc was simply defending its lair, its territory.
I don’t think there was any real intention of taking people. He had plenty of chances if he wanted to do that.
It seemed the motor was what really got him stirred up. Some bad association with the motor.’
– Boyne Litchfield
The boat attacks were reported in the local media, with a mixture of bemusement and sensationalism. ‘Giant Crocodile Scare!’ was one headline, while the authorities urged people to avoid Sweetheart’s part of the river.
But for many, if you ventured in there, you took your chances.
Despite Sweetheart’s seeming aversion to people, as the attacks continued there remained the potential for someone to be harmed, or even killed.
The authorities eventually decided to act.
Dave Lindner, a Ranger with the Wildlife Department, was charged with removing Sweetheart from the Finniss.
Lindner was originally from Canada, but had lived for many years in the Territory, and was the department’s foremost wild crocodile expert. He had captured, relocated, and killed many crocs during his tenure.
Lindner was not enthusiastic about his task.
‘It was very disheartening, as (there) was recognition of Sweetheart’s right to exist and inhabit the billabong.
People should have adapted their fishing practices to accommodate him.’
– Dave Lindner
But despite the boat attacks, people had been unwilling to do so.
Worse, a fishing competition had been scheduled for the Finniss in July 1979, which would attract the exact type of small boats that triggered the croc. Lindner felt, if Sweetheart remained, a serious incident at the fishing competition was likely.
Rather than shoot Sweetheart, as had been originally requested, Lindner came up with an alternative. They would trap the croc, and relocate him to a more isolated location.
Lindner laid out a large crocodile trap, in the area Sweetheart inhabited. A crocodile trap is a metal frame with a swing door: the croc swims in to get the bait, the door shuts and locks behind it.
Lindner and a three man support team camped beside the Finniss for 8 days, while they waited for Sweetheart to show. Their trap was baited with a dead dingo.
Finally, on July 19, they had success. Sweetheart took the bait, and was trapped.
But moving such a large animal was not easy: Sweetheart was measured at 5.1 metres long, with a weight of 780kg. A large dose of animal tranquiliser was administered, to sedate him.
While Sweetheart was being removed from the trap, the safety rope around his snout became entangled with a submerged log. He became stuck underwater, his large bulk making it difficult to free him. In his groggy state, he ingested a large amount of water.
Sweetheart was finally removed from the water, but he had effectively drowned.
He died on the riverbank.
While Sweetheart had been thought of as a nuisance, and even a threat, he was also viewed affectionately by many locals. His death made front page news in the Territory.
His body was preserved and stuffed, and was then gifted to The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT), which opened in Darwin, in 1981. He now has a prime spot at the top of the entrance walkway.
On the day that I visited, Sweetheart was one of the most popular exhibits, with a small crowd constantly gathered around. Kids in particular, seem to love him.
In this context, his expression reads as a happy one.
The 2007 feature film ‘Rogue’, is loosely based on Sweetheart’s story.