- The Legend of Gomek, William Adams
Throughout the history of zoos and aquariums, there have been certain, individual animals who have enjoyed a unique celebrity status. Just as with human celebrities, the cause for their fame may vary. Maybe they were the first member of their species to be seen outside their homeland. Maybe they were just an unusually large or strangely colored individual. Or perhaps they had some sort of unique history.
Whatever their cases, almost all of them have one thing in common – they are mammals. Almost all. There is a very tiny clique of other animals who have achieved star status. Among those, the one with the most striking life story might be Gomek.
The life of the saltwater crocodile who would one day be known as Gomek began in the jungles of New Guinea, possibly as early as the 1930s. The crocodile would have reached adult size by the time World War II touched the island. There’s not much we can surmise about Gomek’s early life, but by the 1960’s, he had started to earn something of a reputation among the natives of the Fly River. There were probably three reasons for this. One was that he was very black. A second was that he was very big. And third, and most importantly, was that he had taken to killing and eating them. In their eyes, he wasn’t just a crocodile – he was Louma, a crocodile possessed by an evil spirit.
Eventually, the rumors reached the ears of an Australian crocodile hunter (not that Australian crocodile hunter) named George Craig, who was operating out of eastern New Guinea (what is now the nation of Papua New Guinea, then overseen by the Australian government).
After catching the croc with a harpoon to the back, Craig (and the twenty men it took him to tow the beast), Gomek was transported to an enclosure on nearby Daru Island. It was then that he was given his name, Craig’s backhanded compliment to a stingy colleague of his. In contrast to his savage reputation on the river, the captive Gomek was a rather placid, easy-going animal… though still capable of exploding into action at the sight of a food pail. When Australia granted Papua New Guinea (including Daru Island) independence, Craig moved back to Australia. He took Gomek with him, installing him at Marineland Melanesia, an aquatic theme park on Australia’s eastern seaboard. There, Gomek was bigger and bigger audiences… and he got bigger and bigger himself.
It was Gomek’s size which brought him to the attention of American adventurer and animal-dealer Arthur Jones, who purchased the big croc in 1985. Jones was accompanied by film star Bo Derek when he flew down to Australia to meet his new acquisition that year; soon, Gomek was bound for the United States. For four years, Gomek was housed at the Jones ranch, before making one final move – to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, in 1989.
Gomek lived at St. Augustine until his death in. The Farm’s goal was to acquire living representatives of every species of crocodilian in the world, and Gomek was their crown jewel. Housed in a special tank with underwater viewing and an adjacent grassy lawn, the saltwater crocodile was featured on billboards and radio ads across the south. Feeding demonstrations were packed as horrified guests watched the giant hurl himself towards keepers offering nutria and other treats. With the possible exception of the first white alligators to be discovered and exhibited, I can think of no crocodilian to ever rival Gomek’s star power.
In April of 1997, Gomek was found lying at the bottom of his pool, having suffered a heart attack in his sleep. He was between 60 and 80 years old, measured seventeen and a half feet long, and weighed nearly a ton. Even in death he would retain his celebrity status; following his necropsy, his massive body was stuffed and installed in a customized pavilion, furnished with New Guinea tribal artifacts (I always wondered what Gomek’s human victims would have thought if they’d see what became of their killer).
St. Augustine would eventually acquire a new giant saltwater crocodile – Maximo – and that is who I found grinning at me through the glass during my first visit to the park. He was the first saltwater crocodile I’d ever seen in the flesh, and I was incredibly impressed. Still, there was only one Gomek.