I don’t know what, unless I was simply supposed to be there, possessed me to get up at the crack of dawn and go down to surf the outgoing tide. I never do that. I don’t like surfing the outgoing tide in Tamarindo now, with the estuary dumping out its murky water practically at the Pico Grande reef. You can see from the beach why it would be better to wait a few days until the early tide is coming in, which is what I usually do. I live here. I can afford to be picky. But on Friday morning, I went anyway. In fact, it was late on Thursday afternoon when, for some reason, I decided to get up early and surf the outgoing tide in the morning, which I know perfectly well I don’t like. And as I might have expected–I didn’t like it. There were plenty of waves, but all swirly and weird, breaking funny like I’m not used to, and the murky water and smelled of the brackish estuary. The current was pushing me around, and I got a little freaked out about crocodiles. I know that the estuary is where they live, and I know that some of them are huge and tame. I tell myself all the time that crocodiles don’t eat people, but I declare I could feel their beady eyes on me. So I rode the second wave I caught all the way in to the beach and decided to go home for breakfast.
The last thing in the world I expected was to end up assisting the victim of a crocodile attack.
As I walked down the beach toward the path to the street, I saw something that didn’t make sense. My friend Edgar pulling somebody out of the estuary on the board. A child? No, not a child. A very big person. Something wasn’t right about the person’s face. Was that blood on it? And he wasn’t acting right. Edgar wasn’t acting right, either. I put my board down and asked, “Do you need help?” because something was wrong, but I couldn’t tell what. That’s when Edgar told me that a crocodile had just attacked the man as they attempted to across the estuary. They fought it until it let him go.
Edgar ran for help and I went to the man. He was lying on a small surfboard, floating in a about a foot of swirling water. The was conscious and there were holes in his face. Big holes. He looked up at me and I knew there was no way on God’s green earth I could get a man this big out of the water by myself. I asked him if he could walk. He told me his right leg was pretty f*’d up. I asked him if he could crawl. He said he thought so. So I tried to help this large, terribly injured man crawl from the sea onto the land. His hands and arms were full of bites from crocodile teeth, already starting to swell. Then I saw his leg.
It wasn’t a leg anymore. There was a foot, but it was no longer his foot. It was a foot with an ankle, floating, still attached to various types of flesh and a bare, jagged bone. I told myself not to look at it.
As soon as he was completely out of the water, I told him to lie down. The tide was going out, like I said, and I knew the water would soon be far away. He rolled onto his back. And there I was on the beach with a mutilated man that I do not know, somewhere between life and death, sometime before 7 AM on a beautiful morning.
I held his head in my hands and he breathed. I pulled Edgar’s board toward me and propped the man’s head on it. Then I took off the long-sleeved rashguard (which I only wear when I am trying to avoid sunburn, but for some reason put on that day at 5:30 in the morning), and tied it as tightly as I could above his right knee. I knew that the mess below it was not going to be of use to him anymore, but I also knew that he would bleed to death right there in the sand if someone didn’t stop him. Then I did the only other thing you can do at a time like that: I put my hands on either side of his head, held it lightly so he would feel there was someone with him, and prayed to God that he would not feel too much fear or too much pain.
I thought he might die. I know that the human body is amazingly strong, but I didn’t know how much blood he’d lost or how long it would take for an ambulance to come. Or if they would have what he needed when they got there. I had a flashback of the man who died on the beach in Tamarindo years ago after a drowning incident because when the emergency team arrived to resuscitate him, no one had charged the defibrillator.
Lots of guys arrived and started running around cursing, exclaiming, bring bandages and ice. I got up and walked quietly away. There was nothing more I could offer as more capable help began to arrive. That’s when I had to sit, for a minute, with my head between my knees and tell myself not to faint. I’m choosing not to describe in detail the mutilation that this man suffered. Even the nastiest pictures the media posted do not do it justice. Fortunately.
He’s alive. His name is Jon. He is in the hospital fighting for his life as I write this, and winning. Of course–he beat the croc. He lost most of his right leg below the knee, but the rest will heal as long as infection is held at bay. Crocodiles are dirty creatures with dirty mouths and dirty teeth.
What’s Normal/What’s Not:
I’m no authority on crocodiles, but do know it is normal for large reptiles to live in estuaries, where fresh and salt water mix. I do know that crocodiles swim in the ocean. I do not think they generally live in the ocean, but they certainly go out for a swim once in a while. I know that this crocodile (or these crocodiles, because they all look alike to me) lives in the Tamarindo estuary. I know that normally crocodiles live on fish, dead things, and small birds/animals that they catch. What is NOT normal is that this crocodile, or he and his cousins, like to hang out by the boats where people are. I’ve heard the boat drivers throw food to them so tourists can watch them eat. I have not seen them do that myself, so I am not saying it is a fact–although people I trust say that it is. This crocodile will let you walk near as it suns itself on the beach. I’ve seen people do it. It will come up out of the water onto the land where people are standing. In essence, it is not afraid of people, and that is NOT normal. And it is also not normal for a crocodile to attack a large grown man. I don’t understand why it would do that. We are not supposed to look like food to them. A dog, yes. A child, unfortunately, yes. A man the size of Jon? No. How many times have I joked that a crocodile wouldn’t want me because I’m too old and too tough to chew? Wrong.
Every surfer in the world is aware that crocodiles live in estuaries, just as we know that sharks lives in oceans and stingrays sleep in the sand. It is a risk, big or small, that we knowingly take, at least to some degree. I used to cross the estuary on my board all the time, but since I’ve been back in Tamarindo I haven’t done it even once. I took one look at that croc when I got back into town and decided that the waves on this side will do just fine for a girl like me. Color me satisfied. Even that doesn’t make me safe, and that’s exactly my point: suffers make choices and are aware of at least dangers that fall within the realm of normal.
That crocodile, in my opinion, is not normal.
I worry about visitors. Tourists. People from San Jose or Santa Cruz. People from places like Kansas and Manitoba. People who have no idea. Children. I hear the authorities are putting up signs. Is that good enough?
Jon and Edgar are big, strong men. They are both much bigger and far stronger than I am, and they were together as they fought this creature. I’ll be honest: I am full of fear. And this time it’s not fear of something I saw in a movie or dreamed in the night–it is fear of something I held in my hands.
The Ugly Side:
I know I will surf again, but not today. Today I will stand by the water and think about the ugly side of Mother Nature’s beautiful face. I will think about the necessity of a body full of warm blood, and how perfect it is to have two arms, two legs, one head.
Today, that alone is enough of a thrill.
The Man The Crocodile Didn’t Eat
Photo by Leonardo Pinero