Crocodile blamed for British snorkeler's death

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The Independent Online

The body of 37-year-old technical services superintendent Russell Harris was discovered yesterday in a creek on the island of Groote Eylandt off Australia's northern coast.

Acting police senior sergeant Stephen Pfitzner said all the indications were that Harris was attacked by a crocodile.

"There are a number of injuries on the deceased and also there was a crocodile sighted very close to where the deceased was located," Pfitzner said.

Authorities were flying Harris' body to the northern port city of Darwin for an autopsy later Monday to confirm his cause of death.

Harris disappeared Saturday while snorkeling with another man off rocks near Picnic Beach on the island, which is home mainly to local Aborigines but also has a large manganese mine operated by Anglo-British mining group BHP Billiton, where Harris had been working for five months.

Pfitzner said Picnic Beach was a popular swimming spot for workers on the island, despite crocodiles inhabiting the area.

"A lot of the non-indigenous staff use that area as a recreational area, it's quite popular for swimming and snorkeling and spear fishing," Pfitzner said.

A four-meter crocodile "is not unusual for that area," he added. "I think we probably need to send a warning out to people that these animals do inhabit these areas and that's the danger you face by jumping in the water."

BHP Billiton was arranging to fly members of Harris' family, and that of his American wife, to Darwin and also had sent counselors to help more than 200 staff working at the mine deal with the death of their colleague.

"It is a small community and the (mining) operations are very much the center of that community so this will be a very difficult time for them," said BHP Billiton spokeswoman Tania Price.

Saltwater crocodiles, which can grow up to seven meters in length are common in rivers and in the sea around northern Australia. Their numbers have exploded in recent years thanks to a hunting ban imposed in the 1970s when it was feared the giant animals could be wiped out by people shooting them for their skins.

If it is confirmed, the weekend killing would be the second fatal crocodile attack in a month in northern Australia. Late in August a 60-year-old man fishing from a canoe in northeastern Australia was dragged underwater and killed by a crocodile.