The boat carefully edged into the verdant deceptively peaceful Kakadu billabong whilst we kept a close watch for the apex predator. Our guide called ‘over there’! The massive deadly saltwater crocodile calmly watched us with thoughts of dinner in his eyes. I restrained my internal shudder resulting from being so close to such a dangerous wild animal.
Australia has a reputation for being the home for many dangerous creatures. Many scary tales abound detailing the sheer number of dangerous animals which are part of ‘daily life’ for the average Australian.
My aim is to dispel the myths and provide the facts about which creatures are truly dangerous and how to avoid these dangers when you visit or live in Australia.
As a result of scary movies like Jaws many people have a heightened fear of sharks. Within Australian waters at least 182 species of sharks have been observed, of which only 3 varieties are known to have fatally attacked humans, being the Great White Shark, the Tiger Shark and the Bull Shark. Any shark greater than two meters in length can be dangerous to humans.
Taronga Zoo maintains the Australian Shark Attack File which is kept up to date after each shark attack. According to Taronga Zoo there is on average only one unprovoked shark fatality each year.
Taronga Zoo also has advice on how to minimise the risk that you will be attacked by a shark. For visitors the best option is to only swim at beaches which are patrolled by lifesavers.
If someone is attacked by a shark you need to first ensure that you do not put yourself in danger to retrieve the victim. Once recovered treat the victim with the standard first aid procedures. Call 000 for emergency medical treatment and take action to reduce bleeding.
Be afraid. Be very afraid. Australia has 384 known species of snake, of which 25 species are considered to be deadly. Within this group are the ten most deadly snakes on our planet.
But while there are many deadly snakes in Australia the actual death rate is on average only 2-4 people per year, which is very low as a result of the ready availability of anti-venom and medical facilities. In comparison, in countries like India over 50000 deaths each year occur as a result of snake bites. The majority of Australian snake deaths are as a result of people trying to kill a snake, blocking the snake’s escape route or showing off.
The ten most deadly snakes are:
- Eastern or Common Brown Snake – which is responsible for the majority of Australian snake deaths
- Western Brown Snake
- Mainland Tiger Snake
- Inland Taipan – most deadly but it is unusual for anyone to be bitten
- Coastal Taipan
- Mulga or King Brown Snake
- Lowlands Copperhead
- Small Eyed Snake
- Common Death Adder
- Red Bellied Black Snake
Australia’s deadly snakes (and their less deadly brethren) live in a variety of environments, including urban areas, forests, deserts and watercourses. A basic principle is to walk loudly and make noise if you are in a bush or farming area, as most snakes will try to escape from humans. Wear good shoes and long trousers if going into a bush or farming area as extra protection. Be careful if working with piles of debris which could be a snake habitat.
If you encounter a snake back off quickly and get a good distance away and keep moving until you are certain it is not coming after you. Don’t try to kill it or otherwise engage with it, as they are very fast to react and can move quickly. Ensure that the snake can access an escape route as most will only attack if they feel threatened.
If someone is bitten by a snake the appropriate first aid is to call for emergency medical assistance on 000 as soon as possible. After ensuring that there is no further danger you should apply a pressure immobilisation bandage from the bite site and if possible keep the victim as still as possible to minimise the amount of venom moving through the body until medical assistance arrives.
Most people don’t realise that some jellyfish can kill you. In Australia the lethal stinger season occurs between October and June every year in the northern parts of Australia, which includes the Northern Territory, northern Queensland and northern West Australia. There are two lethal jellyfish known in Australia, the massive Box Jellyfish and the miniscule Irukandji Jellyfish. Each year on average 1-2 people die from lethal jellyfish stings.
There are also many other stinging jellyfish in Australian waters which can cause pain and discomfort.
During the lethal stinger season you should not swim in unprotected or unpatrolled beaches or river mouths, and at sea anywhere close to shore. Patrolled beaches will usually have a stinger net you can swim safely inside, however be aware that Irukandji Jellyfish can still get through the holes of stinger nets so ensure that the lifeguard has confirmed the absence of jellyfish inside the net before you swim. It is recommended that you also wear a full body stinger suit when swimming inside the nets to minimise the risk of being stung.
Also never touch any washed up jellyfish on a beach – they can still sting you! And closely supervise your children both while swimming and on the beach during the stinger season.
Box jellyfish are a large jellyfish which can be up to 3m long from the top of the bell to the end of their tentacles. The bell can have a diameter of up to 30cm and there can be up to 60 tentacles which can contract and extend to hunt for prey.
A severe box jellyfish sting can cause the victim’s heart or breathing to stop with subsequent death.
The best treatment is to avoid being stung, but if someone is stung the treatment is to dial 000, administer CPR if needed and use vinegar on the site/s of the sting to safely wash away the residual tentacles and get to a hospital as quickly as possible.
The relatively miniscule Irukandji jellyfish are a group of different species which can be between 1cm and 10cm in diameter in the bell, with 4 tentacles.
When an Irukandji Jellyfish stings you will feel only a minor sting. Within 5 – 40 minutes you will feel severe pain, headaches, anxious behaviour, vomiting and sweating. For some of the Irukandji species you may also get very high blood pressure or a heart attack which can potentially result in death.
The best treatment is to avoid being stung, but if someone is stung the treatment is to dial 000, administer CPR if needed and use vinegar on the site/s of the sting to safely wash away the residual stingers and get to a hospital as quickly as possible.
The northern part of Australia (which includes the Northern Territory, northern Queensland and northern West Australia) is the home of both freshwater and saltwater crocodiles which can attack and kill humans and animals. Australian crocodiles can grow up to 7m long! Every year on average 1-2 people are killed by crocodiles, most of which were preventable deaths if people had followed the Be Crocwise guidelines.
In northern Australia you should not swim in rivers, swamps or lakes unless you have been advised by a reputable source that the water is crocodile free (just because you cannot see them does not mean they are not there). Sometimes crocodiles can also be found on beaches and around offshore islands. Crocodiles are common in every waterway up to hundreds of kilometres inland so are an everyday hazard which you need to be aware of and actively avoid.
Do not assume that there will be signs warning of danger. The NT Parks and Wildlife Commission – Be Crocwise website has more information to help you to stay safe.
If someone is attacked by a crocodile you need to first ensure that you do not put yourself in danger to retrieve the victim. If recovered (do not enter the water with crocodiles present, call for help instead) treat the victim with the standard first aid procedures. Call 000 for emergency assistance and medical treatment and take action to reduce bleeding.
Mention ‘Australia’ and ‘spiders’ in a single sentence and most people will shudder. Australia boasts some of the most dangerous spiders in the world, including the infamous Funnel Web and Redback Spiders.
While very poisonous, there have been no recorded deaths in Australia from spider bites since 1981, when the anti-venom for Redback spiders became available to complement the existing Funnel Web Spider anti-venom which has been available since the 1950s. Anti-venom is only used in more severe cases.
Funnel Web Spiders
Funnel web spiders are a dark or black colour and are only 2-3 cm long. There are 40 different species in Australia of which the Sydney Funnel Web Spider is the most poisonous, and is probably responsible for all recorded 13 deaths. They live in forests and urban areas, and can be found both in small burrows under the ground and some varieties live in trees. The burrows will have spider silk radiating outwards as trip lines for the spider to sense prey. Male funnel web spiders will also wander around when seeking a mate.
For first aid a Funnel Web Spider bite victim should be kept still and quiet, and a pressure bandage should be applied from the bite site up the limb, similar to treatment for a snake bite. If possible the spider should be collected and then seek immediate medical attention.
To avoid being bitten by Funnel Web Spiders you should take care when gardening and wear long clothes and gloves, and also avoid disturbing spider burrows. If you see a wandering spider leave it alone. Also, if there is a spider in a swimming pool do not assume that it is dead – Funnel Web spiders can live for several days when immersed in water.
Redback Spiders are a black colour with a red or orange stripe and the females are 1cm long and the males are 3-4mm long. Redback spiders are close relatives of the North American Black Widow Spider, and are common across Australia. They like to live in close proximity to humans, and will build their sticky webs in dry sheltered sites which include toilets, sheds, garages, piles of wood and plants. They are often found where the ground has been disturbed, such as in new housing estates and construction sites.
A Redback Spider bite victim can experience severe pain, sweating, weakness and nausea. For first aid apply an ice pack to the bite location, collect the spider (safely) and seek medical attention.
To avoid being bitten by a Redback Spider you should take care in habitats which suit them – check under toilet seats and under the edge of swimming pools and before disturbing piles of junk. Also take care when gardening and wear protective clothing and gloves.
Australia has many more species of spiders which can bite, however normal precautions should reduce the chance of being bitten.
6. Blue Ringed Octopus
The blue ringed octopus are a variety of small octopus which is present in Australia, Japan, South East Asian and various Pacific Islands. In Australia there are three different types of blue ring octopus, ranging from 10 to 20 cm long including the tentacles.
You should be cautious of any small octopus anywhere in Australia waters, where they can live in shallow rock pools and also in salt water up to a depth of approximately 50m. They mainly hide during the day under rocks and in crevices and come out to feed at night. Blue ring octopus are able to fit into tiny gaps as the only hard park of their body is their beak.
When undisturbed they are typically a light brown or yellow colour, however if they feel threatened they will quickly display vivid blue rings on top of a bright yellow body. By the time you see the blue rings you may be too late to prevent being bitten.
The blue ring octopus bite can be painless. Within three minutes of the bite paralysis will set in whilst the victim remains fully conscious. Most victims die from a lack of oxygen.
If you or someone else gets bitten immediately call 000 for emergency assistance, and commence CPR – keep going with the CPR even if it does not appear to be working. The victim may survive if you can keep their oxygen and blood flowing and they may restart breathing once the initial paralysis wears off.
To avoid being bitten by a blue octopus you should take particular care when exploring rock pools on the seashore, and also if exploring shallow reefs, either while snorkelling or scuba diving. Never reach with your hand into rock pools or crevices as a blue ring octopus may not be visible until it is too late. Also closely supervise your children in these environments.
Stonefish are notorious as being one of the most venomous fish around. They live in various tropical and salt water locations around the Indian and Pacific Oceans which includes the shallow coastal waters mainly around the northern half of Australia, in particular in an arc from Shark Bay in Western Australia to Tweed River in northern New South Wales.
Stonefish are approximately 30 cm long and typically sit motionless on the bottom and will camouflage themselves amidst coral, rocks and aquatic plants. Stonefish have 13 sharp spines along their back which each have two venom glands at the base. When threatened they will erect their spines and stay motionless.
Most people are stung when they are either swimming or wading in shallow water. When they step on a stonefish the pain of the sting is excruciating. If this occurs you are recommended to apply first aid including soaking the wound in water as hot as the victim can stand to relieve the pain and seek immediate medical assistance, also noting that an anti-venom is available. In rare cases a stonefish sting can be fatal, although there are no confirmed Australian stonefish fatalities.
To prevent stonefish stings you should wear sturdy footwear on reefs or when you are near rocky or weedy areas. If you walk in a shuffling motion you are less likely to place your foot on top of a stonefish. In addition, do not pick up rocks on reefs – as they may be a stonefish instead!
In Australia you can easily purchase reef or aqua shoes so if you plan to swim or wade in shallow water in the northern part of Australia then make a habit of wearing reef shoes and not picking things up.
Dingoes are relatives of Asian dogs which first arrived on continental Australia as many as 18,000 years ago. Dingoes are wild dogs and while a dingo puppy raised with humans may appear tame, it is still a wild animal which can never be fully domesticated.
Dingo attacks are very rare in Australia. In recent years there have been more regular dingo attacks on humans occurring in particular on the popular tourist destination of Fraser Island in Queensland. Fraser Island is renowned as being one of the largest sand islands in the world and has a dingo colony of approximately 160 animals which are considered to be the purest breed of dingoes in Australia. Attacks have occurred on Fraser Island as a result of people feeding the dingoes.
The average urban Australian will only ever see a dingo in a zoo. They still live wild in country and outback Australia in varying concentrations. Therefore for visitors the best way to avoid dingos is to ensure you get local knowledge for each place that you visit. If you are camping or in the outdoors be cognisant of whether there are any dingos living in the area. If they are around take the usual amount of caution with any wild animals. Ensure children and pets are well supervised, do not leave food or scraps in easily accessible locations, and sleep inside a tent or other enclosed vehicle or building.
The Real Australian Killers
Australia has many scary creatures however hopefully as a result of this article you can see that the risk of being killed by these animals is actually quite low if you take appropriate ‘common sense’ type of precautions. In addition it is also worthwhile to maintain current first aid qualifications and take a well stocked first aid kit with you as you travel.
In Australia the real killers are the following:
- Vehicle accidents (~1000 deaths per year)
- Pedestrian accidents (~200 deaths per year)
- Drowning (~120 deaths per year)
- Top 8 Australian deadly creatures (~ 10 deaths per year between them)
From an Australian animal perspective you are more likely to be stung by a European honey bee (and ~2 deaths per year will occur from people who have an allergic reaction), be bitten by an ant, be swooped by a magpie bird or stung by a bluebottle jellyfish at the beach.
So keep the risk in perspective, be aware of the issues and take precautions and enjoy your time in Australia.
Do Australian animals scare you? Do they prevent you from deciding to travel to Australia? Please share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below.