When a crocodile clamped down on her leg and began to drag her earlier this year, Melissa Cristina Márquez performed the impossible: She stayed very calm.
Her job as a marine biologist requires her to be fearless in the face of giant predators. She’s come nose-to-snout with the likes of great whites and tiger sharks as part of her work studying the habitats of chondrichthyans, and remaining calm come naturally to her. “I’m just fascinated by misunderstood predators, and they just happen to be the most misunderstood so, I’ve never felt scared of them,” she told Jezebel by phone from Sydney, Australia, in June. (Márquez received her master’s degree from Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand.)
Until earlier this year, her biggest career-related brush with danger occurred when a highly venomous centruroides scorpion that had been hiding out in her wetsuit stung her, leaving her arm paralyzed for three weeks.
And then she met the croc. In April, Márquez was filming a program for the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week programming in the Cuban archipelago Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen). The documentary followed Márquez and her crew on their search to find a legendarily large local hammerhead shark known as La Reina. During a sweep of the shallows, Márquez encountered the croc. The next day she tweeted a brief recap of the incident, which began:
The incident was depicted on the Shark Week documentary Cuba’s Secret Shark Lair, which aired on Monday.
Márquez told Jezebel her croc-bite tale in detail. So riveting was her recounting in our interview with her that we are publishing it in full, with light editing for clarity:
MARQUEZ: The irony is: I was bitten by a crocodile during Shark Week. Another scientist and I were filming in Jardines de la Reina, looking for this big hammerhead shark that local Cubans know as the queen, La Reina. We were trying to figure out if it’s just one big female shark, or if it was multiple big sharks, because Cuba’s very secluded from the rest of the world.
Specifically, the Jardines de la Reina only allows around a thousand divers every year. We were really really privileged and really lucky to get to go to this beautiful place. During one of our scuba dives, I had the idea of going into the shallows because hammerheads hunt in the shallows for stingrays. It’s easier really—a good hunting ground. While diving in the shallows, we suddenly saw this big figure. And when we moved our lights, we realized it was an American crocodile. We knew that there were crocodiles around, we just didn’t know they were that close.
Toward the end of our dive, when they were taking out the lights and whatnot, my comms mask started acting up. I was having a really hard time communicating. I couldn’t hear what was going on, and I was getting sprayed in the face with saltwater every now and then. It was just really uncomfortable. So when my dive buddy signaled, “Hey I’m going up,” and I’m like, “Perfect.”
As he was going up and I was about to go up, I was kneeling on my knees on the sandy bottom. It wasn’t that deep at all. I could stand. Suddenly I felt really hard pressure on my left calf, and I was like, “That’s weird.” I thought, “That’s my fin.”And suddenly I started getting dragged backwards, and was like, “Nope, that’s not a fin.”
The first thing that went through my mind is, “Alright, this is most likely a crocodile, because this isn’t what sharks do.” But crocodiles were a completely new animal to me. The closet I’ve come to working with crocodiles is being a Florida native and knowing what to do in the presence of alligators. I did know a few things about crocodiles’ predation, so the first thing that went through my mind was, “Whatever you do, do not move your leg.”
I was in its mouth, which is highly receptive to texture, to taste. I hoped that it wasn’t not biting me too hard. It didn’t feel like it. I didn’t feel pain. I felt really, really hard pressure, but no actual pain. So I was hoping, “Alright, hopefully, because I have the scuba suit on, no blood is coming out, so it doesn’t taste that. It doesn’t feel the meat, essentially, of my leg. It just tastes the neoprene, and it’s gonna let me go.”
I was like, “Don’t struggle,” because two things can happen. Crocodiles will either bite down harder, and then I would start feeling pain, and then: There goes all my rational thinking, really. If it bit down harder, not only would it possibly be painful, but it also could have taken out a chunk of my leg. Or, the worst scenario is that it rolled. That’s how a lot of them incapacitate their prey.
This was right below my knee, so I thought, “Either from my knee below is gonna pop out, or my whole entire leg’s gonna pop off. Either way, I’m gonna bleed to death.” Cuba is very isolated, especially where we were. We were about 80 km south of Cuba. I would have bled out before any medical attention would’ve come get me, essentially. Especially because it was late at night, so I was like, “Whatever you do, do not move your leg.” Once that thought went through my head, the next thing I did was claw at the sand, to see if there was a rock or something I could hold onto.
But I couldn’t find anything. And at this point, I was going into darkness. It was taking me away from the lights. It wasn’t dragging me hard—it was a very slow drag. This was a 10-foot crocodile. Weight, I couldn’t tell you, but was a big croc for its species. I started hitting the microphone, hoping that even though I couldn’t hear them, they could possibly hear me. That’s when I started saying, “Hey, I’m being dragged, I’m being bit.”All of this lasted maybe 10 seconds, tops. But time went really slowly for me then. Everything slowed down, and my mind kind of went into overdrive.
At the very last second, it just opened up its jaws and let me go. I didn’t have to fight it or anything. I think it finally realized, “No, this isn’t what I normally eat. This is a weird texture, it’s not fighting back, etc.” etc. As soon as I realized I wasn’t in its mouth anymore I filled my BCD (buoyancy control device) vest and I shot straight up.
That isn’t the best method of surfacing. Usually you’re supposed to have some sort of safety stop, but I was like, “Nah, no safety stop, I’m bleeding out, I need to know.” I popped up, and my buddy looked at me like, “What in the world? What took her so long?” I struggled to get the mask off. I finally did, trying not to move my leg that much. I didn’t know what it looked like then, I didn’t know how bad the damage was.
I said, “I got bit, I got dragged.” I went into shock a little bit, because I don’t remember really what happened next in the water. I remember people yelling, “Get her on the platform! Get her onto the boat!” I remember at one point, there were three people around me, all dragging my tank to move me faster through the water. I do remember a man kind of turning me toward him to take off my fins being like, “You’re okay, you’re okay.” And then I just got picked up out of the water and onto the platform, and then got my stuff taken off. At least all the heavy scuba diving stuff. The suit, I still had on, and I could see that my leg was there, which was good.
Then Mike, the medic, came up, got his medic bag, and opened up my brand new scuba suit, which I was really sad about. He basically just tore it open with scissors. I was like, “Nooo!” And that’s when we saw the bite.
On the outside of my left leg, there’s two deep puncture wounds. And on the inside, there’s a whole entire a row of teeth, essentially. Not all of them were super deep, some of them were deeper than others, just because not all crocodile teeth are the same exact size. That night only a few puncture wounds were really, really bleeding. The rest of them were more bruised. Five minutes after the croc bite, there was already swelling. Because I wasn’t in immediate danger of my leg being completely torn off, they put me on oxygen for possible bends and were trying to warm me up.
While they called DAN (Divers’ Alert Network) and doctors, the medic was working on cleaning my wound. If the croc bite doesn’t kill you, the infection will, because of just how disgusting their mouths are. They put bleach into my wounds through a high pressure hose. That was more painful than the bite.
I was just answering the medic’s questions, and during a lull in these questions, it hit me like, “Oh my god, what just happened?” He noticed that and was like, “You’re okay, you’re okay!” I nodded, and said, “I’m just sad about the new wetsuit!” Everyone laughed, and the tension was kind of broken. They knew I was okay because I was cracking jokes.
Because we were in Cuba, and I’m Hispanic, I was actually translating between the Cuban medic and the English-speaking medic. Like, “This is what they’re doing, this is what they recommend.”
The night was tough. All told, it was 20 minutes of chaos. I got some really strong antibiotics, which did save my leg from any further infection, but also really, totally, royally screwed over my stomach lining. And the next day (the night, really), I was also dry-heaving. I think it was the shock and the stress of the night in combination with the shock and the stress of a really strong medication going into my stomach. That’s when we started talking about possibly medically evacuating me to the States. We talked about it with multiple medics, multiple doctors, and finally we made the decision that I would stay for another day, but I would go home a little bit earlier than the rest of the crew, so that I could get looked at by professionals in a hospital setting, which is not to say that the people who were on the boat weren’t professionals. I definitely was that Miami hospital’s favorite patient that day, because everyone came, including a class, to look at my croc bite.
Some of the wounds are still healing currently. I’ve still got two of the really deep bite wounds that are still open and slowly closing. The bites weren’t tears or anything. They were very, very clean puncture wounds, just straight up and down. I do sometimes feel a little bit of pain, kind of like a charley horse sort of pain. Other than that, the fact that I literally can walk away from that, after a croc bite puts me in an interesting position as a quote-unquote “croc attack survivor,” but also as a predator scientist.
I can talk to people about this very rationally, I would like to think. The first thing I tell people is: I don’t blame the crocodile, nor do I blame the crew. We had a ton of safety measures put in place, and freak accidents just happen. That’s what it was. It could’ve happened to anyone, it just happened to happen to me. It was best-case scenario of a worst-case scenario.
I was telling some of my friends this story, and they were like, “Oh, did they kill the crocodile?” I’m like, “What? No, they didn’t kill the crocodile!” That that’s the knee-jerk reaction made me really sad. It’s one of those things where these animals also get a pretty bad rap. I think what happened is that it was disoriented from the lights that we had, it was on the ocean floor, bumped into something that happened to be my leg, and bit it to figure out exactly what it was. That’s just the nature of predators. I’m very happy to talk about my story and shine a light on it, being like, “Oh, you know, it’s not the animal’s fault. These things sometimes just happen.”