Live bait...Sean Mooney and his wife, Jo, in the Cage of Death. Photo: Wade Huffman
Sean Mooney survives the Cage of Death and an octogenarian called Chopper.
There's a Disney ditty that discourages people from smiling at crocodiles. Yet here I am swimming with my wife, Jo, just centimetres from the snaggle-toothed maw of a five-metre-long reptile. And we're grinning right in the brute's face.
The only thing that stands between us and a death-rolling by the appropriately named Chopper is some transparent acrylic glass. It mightn't sound like much, but it has clearly withstood a number of croc attacks and has the teeth marks to prove it. Why we're testing its efficacy for ourselves is another question entirely; one I ask myself as Chopper shifts his 790-kilogram frame to get a better look at us, brushing his prehistoric tail against our plastic "cage" in the process.
Indeed, cage is what they call it at Darwin's Crocosaurus Cove, although when you're inside one - submerged in the water of a croc enclosure - it feels more like you're a cling-wrapped morsel being served up for dinner. I guess that's why they call it the Cage of Death. And if the name doesn't scare you, the indemnity form will. Can't say they didn't warn us.
Our journey to becoming bait for an octogenarian carnivore was not a straightforward one. When we first heard about a Top End wildlife facility that lowered people into its crocodile pens via an overhead monorail, we went straight to Google. The first thing we found was a 2011 ABC news report: "Croc cage of death breaks with two inside." Well, that was it for me, but my wife read on and pointed out that no one was hurt, Crocosaurus Cove has a 100 per cent customer-survival record and the cages have since been upgraded. In short, she made me feel like a wimp.
So here we are, swimming with Chopper. We're close enough to touch the stumps where his front legs used to be. They were torn off in territorial battles with younger crocs back when he lived downstream of La Belle Station, just west of Darwin. Somehow that makes him seem all the more ferocious when he turns his cold stare towards us. But he doesn't strike, instead choosing to float slowly down to the enclosure floor. Watching him at such close quarters, feeling the pulse of the displaced water run across our bodies as he moves, is as thrilling as it is terrifying.
After about five minutes in Chopper's world, we are hoisted out of the water and moved over to the next enclosure. By now, our breathing has relaxed and we're no longer clinging to one another. To be honest, the hyperventilation and hugging was more a reaction to the unexpectedly cold water. Now that we're used to it, we can focus on the crocs.
Next stop is Denzel's home. He is slightly smaller than Chopper but, by all accounts, twice as mean. However, he's not really bothered by us, even when our cage bangs up against him. The old Salt'n'Pepa tune, Whatta Man, pops into my head. I can't work out why at first, but then I remember the line "A body like Arnold with a Denzel face". Let me assure you that the reptilian Denzel is all Terminator and very little Malcolm X.
The cage moves up again and glides over the home of Burt, the star of Crocodile Dundee and a real ladykiller. I mean a bona fide mate-murderer, as he has finished off every potential breeding partner that has been introduced to him over the years. I'm glad when we bypass psycho Burt and drop into the marital nest of Houdini and Bess, a couple of crocs who have been together since 1991. At first we don't realise that there are two animals in the water, but after 700 kilograms of Houdini swims by, I happen to look down to see Bess below us. It's a bit of a shock, but she doesn't move a muscle and, at just three metres and 110 kilograms, she is relatively petite and unthreatening.
We turn to face the small crowd of onlookers watching us through windows. I spy our son and daughter taking photos of us. The thought that they might video their own parents' final moments had crossed my mind, but we're returned to dry land before we become a viral video hit. We can now say that we have swum with crocodiles. We've even smiled at them. But we weren't taken in by their welcome grins because - as Disney well knows - they're undoubtedly imagining how well we'd fit within their skins.
The writer was a guest of Crocosaurus Cove.
The Cage of Death experience costs $150 for one person or $220 for two people (in the same cage). Crocosaurus Cove also has a Big Croc Feed Experience, which is a one-hour tour guided by a reptile handler that includes feeding whiprays, archerfish, barramundi and sawfish, as well as participation in the Big Croc Feed show. ($79 for adults, $48 for children aged four to 15). Crocosaurus Cove is on the corner of Mitchell and Peel streets, Darwin. Phone (08) 8981 7522; see crocosauruscove.com.