Australia is a fascinating island country at the bottom of the globe, the only inhabited continent located entirely south of the equator. While its intrigue captures the attention of travelers, the distance and time it takes to get there is one thing that can be off-putting to many.
Buckle up for a 15-hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, or be prepared for over 21 hours of flying time from London. Then, just as you start recovering from jetlag, you have to fend off all those scary creatures that roam the country; hell-bent on killing you! Or are they?
Let’s take a look at the six scariest creatures to see if they are genuinely worthy of our fear.
1. Box Jellyfish
When the award for the most venomous creature in the world is up for grabs, the box jellyfish had better have an acceptance speech written. This creature, also known as a sea wasp, can cause death in as little as 2–4 minutes.
The bell (head) of the jellyfish grows to a foot across and each corner has 15 tentacles that can stretch as long as 10 feet. It is from the tentacles that potent venom is delivered. The nervous system is affected within 4 minutes of the fatal sting and the toxin locks the heart into a contracted state. Death comes quickly.
But the good news is that only 79 people have been killed by box jellyfish since record-keeping began in 1879. So, the odds are stacked in your favor. And, they’re only found in the warm waters of northern Australia, mainly from November–May. Draw a line halfway through the map of Australia and you should be fine to swim anywhere south of that line.
Pro Tip: The best defense is prevention. If visiting regions where they live, swim only within stinger enclosures. Always wear a stinger suit if you swim outside the enclosures. Locations such as Cairns and Airlie Beach in Queensland have protective lagoons with sandy beaches and grassy areas, so all family members can cool off safely away from ocean waters.
2. Taipan Snake
We can’t deny that the world’s most venomous snake, the taipan, is endemic to Australia. Their venom is so potent it can kill a human within hours if a sufficient amount is injected.
The average length of a taipan is 6–8 feet and they, too, are found in the warmer, wetter temperate-to-tropical coastal regions. Their habitat includes woodlands, grazing paddocks, hollow logs, piles of vegetation and litter, and sugar cane fields — anywhere there is an abundance of rats and mice.
Take comfort in knowing that rats, mice, and birds are their preferred diet. Humans aren’t featured on their menu, but they will strike quickly and repeatedly if under a surprise siege.
Pro Tip: While known to be highly nervous and alert, taipans prefer a quick vanishing act over engaging in a confrontation. Official estimates declare there are about 3,000 all-species snake bite cases annually in Australia; 300–500 require anti-venom with an average of two fatalities a year.
3. Great White Shark
We’ve all read Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws, or seen Spielberg’s movie adaptation. I was 14 when my fingernails dug deeply into the cinema seating on my one and only viewing of the movie. I screamed and looked away; the spine-chilling scenes of a great white shark attacking humans and boats were too much. That movie kept people out of the water for years. For many, the vision remains in the depths of our brain, parcelled as “things to be scared of.”
These sharks inhabit Australian waters, but humans are also not on their usual menu. The chance of being a victim of a great white shark attack in Australia is well over 50 million to one.
Pro Tip: The International Shark Attack File lists the number of unprovoked and provoked attacks, with the latter almost doubled. Therein lies the first tip: as the saying goes, “don’t poke the bear!” Avoiding unprovoked attacks includes not swimming at dusk or in darkness, not wearing sparkling objects and swimming only in clear waters. If the beach is patrolled, swim between the flags, and leave the water quickly if schools of fish gather.
4. Saltwater Crocodile
Steve Irwin, the late, great Aussie crocodile hunter, and the fictitious movie character Crocodile Dundee, gave the impression that crocodile wrestling is a daily pastime for Australians. The truth is that it is a big “nope!”
This fearsome animal is the largest living reptile in the world. In Australia, they can be found in coastal waters, estuaries, lakes, inland swamps, and marshes in the northern areas of Queensland, the Northern Territory, and upper regions of western Australia. Growing up to 7 meters in length (almost 23 feet) and living up to 80 years of age, the fascination around these creatures often counteracts the fear that surrounds them.
They are not fussy eaters; their diet consists mostly of birds and fish. Still, they’ll take an unsuspecting kangaroo, water buffalo, or foolhardy human who enters their space. However, you can take comfort in that they’re reported to kill less than one human annually on average.
Pro Tip: Don’t seek them out in the wild. Never swim or get near the water’s edge where signs indicate their presence. Several safe, up-close opportunities exist in which to view them. You can take a river cruise and watch in safety as wild crocodiles are fed. The Crocosaurus Cove in Darwin provides an intimate underwater viewing system where those game enough can enter the water and appreciate the size of these reptiles from the safety of a clear acrylic cylinder.
5. Sydney Funnel Web Spider
As the name suggests, the Sydney Funnel-web spider is found only in New South Wales. This little guy grows to 1.5 inches and burrows into the ground, predominantly under logs and rocks in forested areas. They spin silk trip lines around their burrow and rush out when tasty beetles, cockroaches, small lizards, or snails herald their presence when brushing against the silk.
Contrary to popular belief, they don’t jump onto or chase people. While they may stumble into a swimming pool or take cover in a shoe left outside, they don’t live in houses. Although their fearsome reputation is often exaggerated, they deserve respect as their venom is the most toxic of any spider to humans and can result in death. The venom of the females and juvenile spiders is less harmful.
Pro Tip: First aid consisting of a pressure bandage and immobilization should be administered immediately after a bite is suspected. The victim should then be taken to a hospital where an anti-venom can be given. There have been no fatalities from Sydney Funnel-web spider bites since the anti-venom was developed in 1981.
Suppose you venture into shallow bays, estuaries, and reef flats in the coastal regions of northern Australia. In that case, you may encounter the estuarine stonefish. This experience won’t be pleasant. For a start, the stonefish is just plain ugly. However, it does hold the award for the most venomous fish and deserves respect on that merit. But to look at it, it is junkyard ugly.
Around 1 foot in length, the skin of the stonefish is devoid of scales, covered in warts and algae. Its beady eyes protrude from a raised bony structure on a grooved and pitted head. Their grotesque head and warty body allow them to be masters at camouflaging well against the rocky sea bottom.
It is pretty rare to actually see the stonefish; however, should you unwittingly step near or directly on one, you’ll be met with the venom from its 13 needle-sharp dorsal fin spines. The pain is immediately excruciating, may last for days, and can involve muscular paralysis, breathing difficulties, heart failure, and death.
Pro Tip: Wear sturdy footwear when walking on reef flats or adjacent rocky or weedy areas to avoid this unpleasant experience. It is important to note that stonefish can survive out of the water at low tide. If stung by a stonefish, seek medical attention quickly, as anti-venom is available. There have been no recorded stonefish-related deaths in Australia. One tough Aussie claims he navigated the pain simply by keeping his foot in a bucket of hot water while drinking a bottle of red wine!
Noteworthy, unusual, or dramatic events like shark and crocodile attacks make headlines on global news sites and induce unwarranted fear. However, the animals that create the most risk to our lives are not featured in this list and are, in fact, much more commonplace.
Horses and donkeys cause the most deaths in Australia, mostly related to falls, followed by cattle, generally causing road accidents. Domestic dogs rank as the third biggest killer, predominantly in attacks on children under 4 years of age. Kangaroos causing road accidents and bees stinging allergic victims round out Australia’s top five risks to life from animals.
Clearly, these six featured creatures, including sharks, crocodiles, snakes, and spiders, don’t warrant the fear surrounding them. With common sense, the chances of encountering these creatures are rare, leaving visitors to enjoy the scenery, weather, and laid-back culture Australia offers. And there’s plenty of red wine for medicinal purposes, too!