Known primarily as a tourist destination, Rethymno, Crete, Greece has its fair share of olive orchards, sheep, and cattle ranches too. In the summer of 2014, farmers around the man made lake Amari noticed that their livestock was going missing. As there were no natural known predators in the area, locals became curious as to what was snatching up sheep, ducks, and swans. On the morning of July 7, 2014, a photographer finally discovered the mystery behind the missing animals, prompting a tourism boom for Rethymno.
Originally from Heraklion, Greece Sarantos Nikos is an aerial photographer. Using a drone he captures the beauty of his island home. His work has been featured in both the Los Angeles CineFest and the Berlin Flash Film Festival. He also has a YouTube channel with over 4,000 subscribers and just under 5 million views. Fully certified through the Hellenic Civil Aviation Authority (HCAA), Nikos uses a DJI Phantom2 to capture breathtaking images of Greece. With over 2 million views, the video he filmed with his drone on the morning of the 7th is by far his most popular.
The video begins with the unmistakable roar of a drone’s blades and we see the drone swiftly lift into the air, it’s shadow appearing in the bushes near the roadside. Within moments the drone is soaring over the large man made lake sunken in a valley of lush hills. As the drone flies over the mirror still lake you can see that it supports a vast plant ecosystem, a perfect hiding spot for whatever creature has been capturing the nearby livestock. It looks almost like the lake has covered a forest, with bits of treetops breaking out of the surface. The drone sweeps over a few white branches reaching up out of the water and then focuses on a mass floating on the surface. At first, the mass looks like it could be just another clump of vegetation. But then, the drone comes closer and you can clearly see a body with a long tail, a pointed snout, and four short legs, a crocodile!
With its legs splayed out to the sides, the crocodile seems to be enjoying a relaxing day on the water, soaking up the sunshine. The water is perfectly still around the crocodile, it looks as if it is asleep. The drone comes in a bit closer and you can see the details of the crocodile’s pattern along it’s back. Just as the drone is about to be directly over the crocodile, it brings it’s hind legs in close to its body, sensing something out of the ordinary. Clearly the crocodile has heard the drone. It uses its strong tail and legs to swish itself forward and down to the murky depths of the lake, out of reach of the drone’s camera.
Nikos was amazed at what he found. As he wrote in the video’s description, “There are no free crocodiles in Greece and this is the only one found and filmed in a natural environment. Probably someone stupid had bought it from a pet store and then he left it free in the lake.” The world’s 13 species of crocodiles are native to the tropical regions of Africa, Asia, North and South America, and Australia. The smallest of these crocodiles, the dwarf crocodile, only grows to about 5ft long weighing between 13-15lbs. the largest crocodile is the saltwater crocodile and can reach lengths of 20ft, weighing upwards of 2,000lbs. They will eat whatever they can grab with their powerful jaws, clamping down and swallowing it whole, leaving no evidence behind.
After Nikos posted the video recorded with his drone, locals named the crocodile Sifis, Joseph in English, assuming it was a male because of its size. Measuring about 6ft long and weighing well over 100lbs, Sifis was released into what his owners thought was an ideal habitat. With plenty of water, sunshine, hiding spaces, and food it was able to thrive. People came from all over with the hopes of catching a glimpse of the Crocodile of Crete. A week after Nikos first captured evidence of Sifis with his drone, he went back out to see if he could once again find the crocodile.
This time Nikos found Sifis basking on the shore, it’s face inches from the water poised to dive in when needed. At first, it is almost impossible to spot Sifis as the crocodile is so well camouflaged. Again, as Nikos states in the video description, “Drone flew over the lake in a distance about 300m. I brought it very near the water and…Sifis. Sifis is trying to hide behind a bush.” The shadow of the drone dances about the crocodile then lowers over the water, almost at level with Sifis. Sifis open his mouth in warning, it most likely hisses at the drone, then quickly dives into the water. It’s strong body thrashing side to side to propel into the quiet depths of the lake.
Sifis is not the first exotic pet to be released into the wild after it’s owners realize they can’t care for it. Whoever released Sifis never came forward, as their actions in the purchase and the release of the crocodile were illegal. While they set Sifis free in what they believed was an ideal location, ultimately it was a very dangerous thing to do. A crocodile in that environment could have easily hurt a human, and Sifis clearly ate to his heart’s content. If Sarantos Nikos hadn’t found Sifis with his drone, disaster could have struck someone choosing to go for a swim in the lake or fishing along the shore. In the end, Sifis was not equipped to survive the winter conditions of the lake, as it is a naturally tropical animal. After many failed attempts to capture a relocate Sifis, officials found him dead when the temperatures dropped the following February. Thankfully, after Nikos posted his video authorities were able to fence off the area to ensure the public’s safety.