By Jack Ewing
It never occurred to me that bathing in the Barú River might be dangerous. We used to go there every day during the dry season, around 4:00 in the afternoon. Sometimes when the tide was in, I wondered if sharks ever came into the river, but we never saw any. We once saw a snake swim across the river. It was partially submerged, and even though it came pretty close to us, I couldn’t tell what kind it was. We saw lots of caimans in the mangrove estuary at Hacienda Barú, but not in the river, and the ones we saw were more afraid of us than we of them. Most of them were a lot smaller than a human and didn’t look like much of a threat.
In the early 1980s we discovered the sport of inner tubing down the river. We acquired a two-person rubber raft and learned to shoot the rapids between the Guabo River bridge and a place where cars used to cross the river near Dominical. The big bridge hadn’t yet been built at that time. During the dry season most vehicles could cross at a place just below present day Villas Rio Mar. We called it the Guanacaste crossing because there were lots of Guanacaste trees there. Either Diane or I would drive our jeep to the Guabo bridge and a couple of us would get in the raft and ride down river to the Guanacaste crossing. The driver would return to the Guanacaste crossing and pick up the adventurers. As far as white water rafting goes, it was kid stuff, but we had a blast anyway.
One day our kids, Natalie and Chris, 14 and 9 at the time, wanted to raft down the river. I took them up to the Guabo bridge, and they started down the river. There was a good current and they were soon out of sight. By the time I made my way back to the crossing over that rough road, Natalie and Chris were there waiting for me. “Daddy, daddy, we almost ran into a crocodile,” they shouted, running up to the jeep. “It was really big,” said Natalie, “and we almost crashed into it.”
“Yeah,” chimed in Chris, “I think we surprised it, because it ran away.”
“ And jumped into the water,” added Natalie
“Wait a minute. Slow down you guys. Just how big was this alligator or whatever you saw?” I asked.
After everybody calmed down I was able to piece the story together. Natalie and Chris had rafted over the roughest part of the river and had reached the calm water near present day Villas Rio Mar. They laid back and relaxed. The raft came up on a gravel bar, and Chris sat up to steer it into deeper water. “It looked like the gravel bar just stood up and ran away,” said Natalie. “I mean we could have reached out and touched it with the paddle. It was really scary. We didn’t know what it was going to do, but it ran right into the water and disappeared.” The kids decided that it was about as long as the boat, around two meters.
From their description, and because it ran from the boat, I suspect that what they saw was a caiman rather than a crocodile. Though it startled Natalie and Chris, it didn’t really give them any reason to fear it. We all figured there was no real danger. Had we known the story of stub tail, at that time, we all might have felt a little differently.
The following incident took place in the late 1940s in a deep pool in the Barú River called “Los Burros” near the place where the Nauyaca Waterfall tour now crosses the river. Joaquin, Vicente and Guido, had been fishing in the pool for a couple of days and had caught more fish than they could carry, mostly croakers. “My god it’s hot today,” sighed Vicente. “I think I’ll go for a dip.” Stripping down to his jockey shorts, Vicente waded in thigh deep, pushed off the bottom and glided out into the pool.
The water looked so refreshing that Guido too began undressing. Joaquin just kept on fishing. “Hey you guys,” he groaned, “you’re gonna scare away all the fish.”
Something big broke the surface and Vicente disappeared in a swirl. Before the turbulence calmed he surfaced and swam desperately toward his friends. Again the monster appeared, caught Vicente’s legs, rolled and waggled in the water and dragged him down, and again Vicente broke free, surfaced and struggled toward the edge. Half dressed and barefoot at the river’s edge, Guido stared in horror as his friend’s blood tainted the clear, blue water. Joaquin, fully clothed, rushed head-on toward the pool, raised machete in hand. The monster again grabbed Vicente and began to roll and submerge. With adrenaline charged courage and strength he didn’t know he had, Joaquin lunged into the water, and swung his long knife at the rolling beast. The blade penetrated the soft underside of the thick armored tail, severing more than half a meter (19½ inches.) Vicente, traumatized and exhausted, surfaced once again. Joaquin stepped chest deep into the water, stretched a helping hand to his friend and pulled him safely to the edge of the pool. The crocodile headed down stream, oozing blood from the stub of its severed tail.
About a year later Nitos Gómez and his brother Chuta were tending their banana plantation at the edge of the Barú slightly up river from present day Villas Rio Mar. Hearing a loud splashing in the river they went to investigate. No sooner had they reached the edge when stub-tail attacked, leaping out of the water and falling against the sharply inclined bank, unable to reach the two men. Nitos remembers the crocodile, which he called a “lagarto,” being well over 4 meters (13 feet) long. Confident that stub-tail couldn’t reach them the two brothers threw sticks and stones at the infuriated beast which eventually retired to a deeper part of the river and disappeared. Had they had a gun, they would have shot it. Not only was it a danger to people, but the hide could be sold for cash.
Everyone knew that stub-tail was always lurking there. It is said to have attacked Juan Bautista Santa María as he crossed the Barú River on horseback, knocking the horse from beneath him. Both horse and rider managed to escape.
At some point in the 1960s stub-tail left the Barú and appeared in the mouth of the Morete River, 20 kilometers (12 miles) down the coast to the southeast. He is reputed to have killed a man there, but considerable doubt surrounds the story. Some say that the man was murdered and the blame placed on Stub-tail. The large American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) with the stubby tail hasn’t been seen for years. No one knows if it died or migrated along the coast to another river, but regardless of its fate, Stub-tail will always be remembered in these parts and its descendants are certainly found here still.
Crocodile Attacks in Costa Rica
The first report I ever heard of someone being killed by a crocodile in Costa Rica was in 1994. The incident took place on the Caribbean side of the country in the Tortuguero National Park. The victim was a foreign volunteer who insisted on swimming in the river at the same place and same time everyday, in spite of warnings by Park Guards. A very large crocodile was known to hang out in the area. One afternoon the boy never returned from his daily swim. A year later someone was killed in Guanacaste and in 1998 there was a death near Puntarenas. In the Puntarenas attack several men were fishing from a boat when one of the fishing lines became snagged on something on the bottom of the river. The fisherman decided to dive down to unhook his line. Several crocodiles of four to five meters were visible on the river bank. The other men in the boat begged their companion not to dive into the water, but he chose to ignore their warnings and paid with his life.
Since that time crocodile attacks on humans in Costa Rica have increased. So far this year there have been two deaths. A couple of years ago two surfers were attacked in two separate incidents about a week apart. Both took place at Playa Hermosa near the Tárcoles River, famous for its population of large crocodiles. Fortunately, both of the surfers survived, though one of the boys, 13 year old Dakota Kirkbride was badly mangled and had to have nerve and tendon grafts. Four months later, he was back out on Playa Hermosa surfing. Both attacks on surfers took place in October, during the crocodile mating season from September to November. People who live near Tárcoles say that during the mating season males battle over territory and females, and the displaced males go into the ocean. If this is true, surfers need to be extra careful at that time of year.
Many crocodile attacks take place at favorite bathing pools and other places where people frequent the river bank. Apparently the large crocodiles learn where people are likely to be and patiently stalk them. Australian aboriginal culture has evolved in an ambient with a constant danger from large crocodiles. They have learned never go to the river at the same place nor at the same time two days in a row and never to set up a routine or pattern of activity when near crocodile habitat. Boating on a regular schedule isn’t a good idea either. These large reptiles are capable of leaping out of the water more than half their body length and have been known to snatch people out of canoes.
When crocodile hunting was legal in Costa Rica, populations of the large reptiles were decimated for the hides, and also because people feared them. The species has now been protected for over 40 years, and many individuals are large enough to be a serious threat to humans. Records show that the smallest crocodile to ever kill a human in Australia was three and a half meters long, but most were over four meters. The same appears to be true in Costa Rica. Four meters is about the length of a double cab pickup.
Prior to 1994 we had never seen an American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) at Hacienda Barú. Now we see them fairly regularly. One of our guides sighted a three meter long individual near the mouth of the Barú River in 2001, and surfers have reported them in the ocean since that time. To my knowledge, the attack on Vicente was the only serious incident in the Barú River. Nevertheless, crocodiles can travel long distances in the ocean, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some large individuals from other rivers such as the Sierpe, Térraba, Savegre and Naranjo were to show up here one day.
I once saw a four meter long crocodile sunning itself on the bank of the Savegre River just below the bridge. About 100 meters downstream two girls were sun bathing on the same bank, apparently unaware of their dangerous companion. One of the girls got up and walked toward the bridge on a service road. The other dove into the river and started swimming across. We yelled at her from the bridge, but she couldn’t hear us. When she was about half way across, the crocodile eased himself into the water and disappeared from sight. I was terrified that it would attack the girl, and desperately scanned the surface of the water for any sign of the beast. Fortunately she made it all the way across, and started walking toward the bridge. The large crocodile appeared on the bank a little way upstream. When the girl reached the bridge, I showed her the crocodile and told her that it had slipped into the water about the same time she had started swimming across.
“Yeah, he’s a big one,” she said, obviously unimpressed.
With that, she climbed up on the concrete railing and leaped into the river. I stood and watched with my mouth open. I thought back over the reports I had read of crocodile attacks in Costa Rica and realized that most could have been prevented with a small dose of common sense. Lack of respect for the danger that these large beasts represent has been at the heart of almost every death, and in many cases the victims had been warned not to go into the water. It has been many years since stub tail left the Barú, but others are arriving to take his place. The crocodile shown in the photo, sunning himself on the banks of a stream at Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge, was three meters long, almost big enough to be a serious threat to humans. Let’s all be careful and use common sense, and maybe we can avoid a tragedy on the Barú River.