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Old 12-24-2010   #1
memphis, Tennessee
Paddling Since: 1987
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after action on Coetzee croc attack

This is a post to discuss aspects of Coetzee’s death that might be useful to others attempting similar runs, or to supporters of such people. Needless to say he was a great man, his death is sad, and some people wouldn’t go near a croc with a 10-foot pole. All that has been said over and over – please keep this topic focused on technique-type stuff.

In my mind, there are two broad areas to consider here. First, whether or not the nile crocodile species tends to develop “maneaters” with special man-preying skills, or if all mature crocs tend to behave the same in terms of hunting methods. Second, regardless of the answer to the first question, what techniques might be employed to counter a sneak-up-from-behind attack on flatwater.

In case you haven’t read it elsewhere, here’s the best description I’m aware of about the attack which killed Coetzee:

According to Chris Korbulic, one of the two people Coetzee was guiding, the 3 paddlers were on a stretch of flat, green water about 100 feet wide, in the middle of the river. They were in tight formation, so close their paddles would hit if they didn't stay in synch. This was Coetzee's strategy to deter attack by both hippos and crocodiles, presumably because they would appear to any predator like one larger animal instead of 3 smaller ones.

Coetzee was in the center in a red boat. The paddler on the left was slightly ahead, and the paddler on the right (Korbulic) was slightly behind. Unknown to them, a mature 15-foot crocodile approached the group from the rear.

Korbulic said, "I glanced over to measure that we were not paddling towards or away from each other. And just in my periphery I saw the crocodile come out of the water, and he got onto Hendri's left side - just the left shoulder with its mouth."

The two paddlers watched in horror as the overturned boat shook for about 20 seconds, presumably while the crocodile was pulling Coetzee out of the tight-fitting cockpit. Realizing they could do nothing, they paddled as fast as they could less than a mile downstream to a village, where they caught Coetzee's boat as it floated by, without even a scratch to tell how he had disappeared.

(condensed from AP report dated 12/21/10, written by Jeff Barnard)

That looks to me like a pretty skillful attack for such a small-brained animal, and quite different from what would normally be used against other animal prey. I imagine that Coetzee was more accustomed to dealing with accidental close encounters in fast water, or with the waterhole-ambush style of attack in flat water that crocs are famous for (although you could argue this was an offshoot of the latter).


Coetzee is said to have believed that a tight formation in the middle of the river was the best defensive mode for flatwater. This seems to make sense, but might deserve rethinking. Given that they had to be in short, 8-foot creek boats in order to handle the whitewater on that segment, was 3 boats simply too few where 6 or 8 would have been safe? Is there any significance to the fact that the predator in this case attacked the center of the formation instead one of the wings, as might be more expected?

What measures can be taken to protect against a surprise attack from the rear? Can you tow anything that would provide some protection (or at least warning) without unduly slowing progress? How about some sort of detachable wire frame fixed to the boat directly behind the paddler?

In light of how cheap depth finders are today, can you make an electronic device that would use sonar to detect a rapidly approaching large mass underwater near your boat?

Would some sort of rear-view mirror be of any help?

Are maneater crocodiles rare enough to be dealt with by a targeted-individual-hunt-and-kill policy? Obviously, if most mature crocodiles are instinctively driven to prey on men, then such a policy will NOT work. On the other hand, if crocodiles are more like tigers in India or grizzly bears in North America, then it could work (or, at least, such a policy is currently being employed in those two cases, and it seems to work fairly well).

How can statistics be gathered, compiled and reported on crocodile attacks in Africa? It appears that he best estimate available is “a couple hundred to more than one thousand per year (wikipedia)” for the whole of Africa, and including both saltwater crocs on the cost as well as nile crocs in the interior. At a minimum, in Hendri’s memory, couldn’t we organize a more complete survey broken down by location, so we could at least see which areas call for the greatest safety precautions?

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Old 12-24-2010   #2
Jenks, Oklahoma
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I don't think there is much more of a kayak based safety procedure than what was done by this party while paddling in waters where man eating Croc's live. These animals are not afraid of humans and in fact humans are just another form of prey for them to eat.

Let's hope this type of attack is by chance and not some sort of croc strategy that will be passed on from reptile to reptile.

Humans these days are so used to being the top of the food chain that we do not realize that not so long ago we were way down the chain. Croc's, Sharks, Grizzly Bears, Snakes and the list goes on are not afraid of us and do what their minds are programmed to do.

It is very sad when incidents like this happen. Having said that us humans are more and more going into the private spaces of many wild animals. Look at the coyote and mountain lion attacks now happening in home neighborhoods in the western USA for examples.

Having more statistics published on attacks like this one is very interesting and should make us more aware of the possible danger. But, I do not think there is any fool proof protection procedure when kayaking in croc infested waters especially where the croc's are used to eating humans.

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Old 12-24-2010   #3
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I'm positive Hendri has forgotten more about paddling in these types of water then any of us will ever know. He was known for doing these runs alone and has did them for a decade. So to second guess experience is retarded, as this man spent more time in these areas then you or I will ever read about. Nothing to learn except no one is safe in extreme environments no matter what your skill and experience is. RIP to a man that lived a great life and was an amazing individual.

And on another note- Ben, Chris and Hendri where right where they wanted to be. They are not looking for anything to die as they were in a WILD animals habitat and shit happened.

‎"We stood precariously on a unknown slope deep in the heart of Africa, for once my mind and heart agreed,I would never live a better day."HENDRI COETZEE" RIP to a man who lived greater then most.
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Old 12-24-2010   #4
memphis, Tennessee
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No doubt, Coetzee was a great man, and he probably had a better understanding of crocs and knew more about surviving crocs than anybody else living today. And that’s not to mention hippos, which of course kill more people than crocs anyway. Remember, Coetzee grew up around crocs (including lots of saltwater crocs in South Africa, which are bigger and more aggressive than nile crocs), and then he led both the Nile source-to-sea and the Nile-real-source-to-lake expeditions, with a total of over 6 months of constant exposure. Most impressive, croc-wise, was probably his 2-day solo of the Murchison segment of the White Nile and his small group trips to explore alternate channels on that segment. That segment is jam-packed with crocs and hippos, supposedly the greatest concentration on earth, and if you put together all of his trips there, it probably adds up to weeks if not months of high-intensity exposure.

Nonetheless, if he were here today, I’m sure he would modestly admit that he didn’t know everything, and that he learned something new on every trip. All I’m asking here is, if he had survived this encounter, what extra bit of knowledge would he have drawn from this experience? I don’t think it’s “retarded” to ask that question, at all. As the old saying goes, we can see further than anybody before us if we stand on the shoulders of giants.

It’s a shame we don’t have more of a written record of what he knew, because we’re bound to lose some knowledge with his death. However, it has come down to us that his golden rule was “Don’t panic,” and that leads me to think that something as small as a rear-view mirror might have been the difference in allowing him to survive this attack.

I can picture in my mind’s eye Hendri catching a glimpse of movement in the mirror, turning his head to see the croc almost on him, then spinning and planting the blade of his paddle against the lower jaw and pushing off, hard, while he shouted a warning to the other two. The croc would spin on him and charge again and knock Hendri’s boat over, but he would roll up and plant another firm push with the paddle off the croc’s side, and the force of that push would run him up on a sand bank, where he would stand up and yell and growl at the croc and wave his paddle like a battle-ax while his friends reached shore and safety. The croc would eye him fiercely a few seconds while it thought of charging the bank, then it would recollect that there’s probably an easier meal down by the village, and it would sink away under the water.
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Old 12-24-2010   #5
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Have you ever tried to push off a tree just before you were gonna float under it? Now imagine something hitting you with momentum and has teeth, you're not gonna "push off", you're gonna get knocked over probably without a paddle and arm with an end result..

The "don't panic" was told to Ben and Chris about moving through towns, villages, military, borders, ect.

Nobody said he knew everything, he just knew more then anybody else. If he were here he would tell you not to have a croc come for you in the water because if it does you're done!

I just think there's not much to learn here except we all are part of the food chain and we always have the disadvantage while in anothers environment.

Be safe Memphis, heard you guys are getting some water.
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Old 12-25-2010   #6
memphis, Tennessee
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Gary, I feel like you’re arguing just for argument sake – but I’ve got some time to kill this Xmas morning while waiting for everybody to wake up. And anyway, you made me go back to some old blogs I hadn’t read in a while, and I found a good Coetzee quote and a Youtube video on crocs that might add something to the general discussion.

First, on the imaginary paddle fight thing, trying to arrest on a stationary object while moving downstream is completely different from hitting something behind you as you both travel downstream. It’s the difference between a head-on car crash and getting rear-ended. I stick by my imaginary story line there – it’s possible someone like Hendri could have pulled that off.

Further, I think it is consistent with the advice Hendri would have given, and likely is how he would have reacted. In Steve Fisher’s blog entry about running the Murchison segment of the White Nile in December 2006, he quotes Hendri and Pete Meredith as giving this advice:

“We finished loading supplies and drove 9 hours to our Karuma Falls campsite; over tea, Hendri and Pete discussed safety protocols, which turned out to be the most intimidating briefing I'd ever heard. Hippos were to be avoided at all costs, and charging crocs must be dealt with reciprocally: kayakers would charge directly back at them, prepared to strike with our paddles and hoping for the best. Vigilance for approaching wildlife must be maintained at all times, with the presence of humans announced by the sound of paddles beating on hulls.”

The “Pete” referred to in the passage above is Peter Meredith, Coetzee’s friend and fellow South African and co-head of several expeditions. Pete is also very knowledgeable about crocs and might even be more experienced than Hendri was – I don’t know which was better, but I’m sure both of them would disagree with Gary’s belief that there is nothing to be gained by discussing this incident.

Also, the “don’t panic” thing was definitely part of his wildlife advice, and a key component. It may have applied to border crossings as well, but it is repeated many times whenever somebody is quoting his advice on dealing with crocs and hippos.

On an unrelated but equally valuable point, another long-known piece of advice about crocs is to go for their eyes if they are holding you. This video starting at 1:15 shows a zebra able to break free by attacking a croc’s eyes.

Merry Xmas all and give thanks that there are no crocs and hippos in your local stream!
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Old 12-25-2010   #7
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"Merry Xmas all and give thanks that there are no crocs and hippos in your local stream!"

AMEN! Merry Christmas Memphis
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Old 12-25-2010   #8
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Sadly this episode reminds me of the documentary of "Grizzly Man." If you haven't seen it the movie is and edited version of video a guy made about living with the Grizzly's in Alaska. This guy was successful at this for many years and while he was clearly off his rocker he was an "expert". A bear finely got him.

I don't know anything about Hendri, but I suspect in much the same way he was an expert at what he was doing and was slightly off of his rocker. I don't mean this in a derogatory way, just that most "normal" people would look at the risks that river people take and consider them off their rockers mainly because they don't understand them.

Anyway, my point is that no matter how expert you are and how much your expertise minimizes the risk, if you keep taking those types of risks the odds will eventually catch up to you. To me that sounds like what happened here, there was no other person then Hendri that was more capable of successfully running a section of water like this, he just had one of those fatally unlucky days.

I am certain that there are lessons to be learned in this tragedy. However, I suspect that teasing those lessons out would require first hand knowledge of what happened and a long history of paddling waters with these types of dangers. Neither of which I think you are going to find on this forum...

RIP Hendri
Life: Live it!
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Old 12-26-2010   #9
dillon, Colorado
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Seriously though he got eaten by a crocidile b/c he was in water with crocs in 1 year in florida I think I remember 4 people...most of whom were rec joggers getting eaten by alligators, also I was paddling in the IRL when a stupid couple from texas or ny paddled their kayak up to a huge dozing gator during breeding season..the gator attacked them, of course. They were able to paddle away and hopefully get back to their state of origin. There is little anyone can do about this unless you want to exterminate all crocodilians (which is an awful idea imo) because they are all man-eaters, or dog-eaters, or whatever-moves-in-front-of-them eaters. You how to catch one on a fishing pole, tie any random piece of trash to the hook if it floats and you jig it near the gator they will bite nearly every time. Crocs are way worse b/c they regularly attack large animals...I bet hundreds of Africans die every year...but really how about all the deaths due to intestinal worms, bacteria, and viruses...way more deadly and easily preventable. We all die in the end so at least he was doing what he loved and actually lived life. I used to paddle in Fl with alligators significantly larger than my 9ft kayak and the small risk was worth it to me, I'm sure he felt the similarly about his risk level.
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Old 12-26-2010   #10
Jenks, Oklahoma
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Anyway, my point is that no matter how expert you are and how much your expertise minimizes the risk, if you keep taking those types of risks the odds will eventually catch up to you.
posted by Badazws6

The comment above sums up the risk factor most of us face when we do adventure sports. My opinion, a person does not have to go to some far off location to tempt the risk factor, there is plenty to go around in our own back yards or where ever we play.

Every year it seems like a few expert class 5 boaters doing runs they are familiar with do not make it. I do not think it has anything to do with them making mistakes, it is just the toss of the dice when the risk factors roll the wrong way.

May all of us risk takers continue to be lucky and when the risk factor goes against us may we rest in peace.

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