The Legend of Sweetheart

Large Australian male saltwater crocodile

Australia’s Infamous Crocodile

In the sparsely populated Northern Territory of Australia, saltwater crocodiles reign supreme in the remote rivers and billabongs. But in the 1970s, one crocodile rose to legendary status for his attacks on small boats around Darwin. Dubbed ‘Sweetheart’ by locals, this massive reptile became a part of Australian folklore before his untimely death.

The Rise of Sweetheart

Sweetheart was a large male saltwater crocodile that lived in Sweets Billabong, part of the Finniss River system located about 55 km southwest of Darwin. He first gained notoriety in the mid-1970s for his habit of attacking small outboard dinghies and fishing boats that ventured into his territory.

While Sweetheart never harmed any humans, his aggressive behavior towards boats became increasingly problematic. Reports started to circulate of the crocodile tipping over dinghies and chomping on propellers. Fishermen trying their luck on Sweets Billabong soon learned to be wary of lingering too long near the water’s edge.

Due to his enormous size and domineering presence, Sweetheart established himself as the apex predator in Sweets Billabong. Locals speculated that the crocodile associated the sound of boat motors with rival males encroaching on his domain. To defend his turf, Sweetheart would strike at anything that floated into his home waters.

Descriptions of the crocodile’s sheer bulk and length fueled his legend across the Territory. Sweetheart was dubbed the “heavyweight champion” of Sweets Billabong and became notorious among Darwin residents. For several years, he ruled over his remote territory mostly undisturbed.

The Capture and Death of Sweetheart

Sweetheart’s aggressive territorial behavior became problematic, he frequently attacked small fishing boats that entered his territorial waters.

To address the public safety concerns, in July 1979 the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife department devised a plan to capture Sweetheart and relocate him to a crocodile farm near Darwin. A four-man team led by ranger Dave Lindner embarked on the challenging mission. After camping for eight days with only brief sightings, they used a dead dingo as bait to successfully trap Sweetheart.

Sweetheart Capture a drowning
Sweetheart Capture a drowning

However, while attempting to haul the 780 kg crocodile from the river, the safety rope around his snout became entangled underwater and Sweetheart tragically drowned. In retrospect, experts felt it may have been better to leave this apex predator undisturbed in his natural habitat.

When examined, Sweetheart’s stomach contents provided fascinating insights. He had scars and damaged teeth from presumed boat propeller strikes over the years. His last meals consisted of birds, turtles, pigs, and fish – a true insight into the diverse diet of Australia’s largest reptilian predator.

Sweetheart was a giant, even by saltwater crocodile standards. The post-mortem examination revealed the crocodile’s last meals – some pig bones, two long-necked turtles, and a large barramundi fish.

The capture mission turned fatal, but Sweetheart’s body was transported to Darwin to be preserved for posterity. Taxidermist Ian Archibald was tasked with transforming the crocodile into a lifelike museum display.

Sweetheart’s Legacy

Ian Archibald the taxidermist spent over a year meticulously preserving Sweetheart’s skin and building an interior frame for the mounted display. Getting the proportions right on such a massive animal posed a unique challenge. The stuffed Sweetheart was later sent on tours across Australia to promote tourism in the Northern Territory, making appearances on TV shows and at public exhibitions.

Sweetheart Capture on trailor

Today, Sweetheart remains one of the most popular exhibits at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, having attracted over two million visitors. While the crocodile’s ramrod straight posture in the display doesn’t reflect how he appeared in life, Sweetheart endures as an iconic part of Australia’s wildlife lore.

Generations of Australians have now grown up with the legend of the Finiss River monster. Sweetheart represents the wonders and dangers of the Northern Territory’s wild tropical waterways.

Northern Territory Museum staff preparing stuffed crocodile Sweetheart for exhibition
Museum staff preparing stuffed crocodile “Sweetheart” for exhibition. (from left Graeme Gow, Ian Archibald, Jim Southern, Paul Horner, ? . Sweetheart was killed in Bynoe Harbour circa 1979)

Interesting Sweetheart Facts

  • Sweetheart was estimated to be over 50 years old at the time of his death
  • He measured 5.1 meters long and weighed 780 kg
  • The average male saltwater crocodile is 4-5 meters long and 400-500 kg
  • Saltwater crocodiles can grow over 6 meters long and live 70+ years
  • Sweetheart’s last meals included pig, turtle, and barramundi
  • His taxidermy frame was elongated and straightened for exhibit purposes
  • The crocodile inspired the horror movie ‘Rogue’ featuring a giant man-eating croc

Saltwater Crocodile Facts

  • There are an estimated 150,000 saltwater crocodiles in Australia’s northern rivers
  • They are found across India, Southeast Asia, and northern Australia
  • The largest crocodile ever recorded was 6.4 meters long in Australia
  • Their bite force is over 3,000 psi, the strongest of any animal
  • Saltwater crocodiles can swim up to 18 mph in short bursts
  • Babies are just 20-30 cm long and weigh 60-80 grams at hatching
  • Crocodiles protect their young for the first year until they are 1 meter long

While Sweetheart may no longer rule Sweets Billabong, his enduring legend is a reminder that crocodiles still reign supreme across Australia’s tropical Top End. With respect and caution, residents and visitors alike can safely coexist with these prehistoric giants.

Image Credits: Library & Archives NT. (1979). Sweetheart. Sweetheart Collection, PH0799/0012. https://hdl.handle.net/10070/308803.