Israeli vacationers tiptoeing on beach after reports of crocodile in Sea of Galilee

July 16, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- The Sea of Galilee, on whose banks loaves and fishes multiplied and disciples were recruited, is gaining a legend of considerably lesser import.

Some people say a crocodile lives there.

The first report came a few weeks ago from a woman visiting her sister on a kibbutz. Since then, several more people said they saw a reptile in the sea.

The accounts have prompted daily searches by rangers and volunteers and have provided grist for picnic-table talk for the thousands of vacationers who flock to the Galilee in the summer.

Some people believe it; some don't. Yesterday, rangers of Israel's Nature Reserve Authority joined the believers.

"We think there is an alligator or a crocodile there," said Dina ZTC Weinstein, a spokeswoman for the park rangers. Two families reported sightings Wednesday night, and "their description was very reliable."

The rangers searched the waters by boat Wednesday night and yesterday, until they were forced ashore by winds and high waves.

"We will try to learn all about alligators, what they eat, and put a lure out there to try to catch them," said Ms. Weinstein.

If they fail, this could hurt the tourist industry that thrives on the throngs of Israeli vacationers who come here each summer. At least, it could hurt part of the tourist industry.

"I was in the shops in Tiberias the other day, and the store owners said they have never seen so many people in the shops in the middle of the day. They were shopping instead of going to the beach," said Eli Hoter, an official of Israel's Society for the Preservation of Nature.

David Carni, deputy manager of Ganei Hamat hotel on the shores of the lake, said there had been no cancellations -- yet.

"People aren't panicking. People are still joking about it, until they see a picture, or somebody gets bit," he said.

It might be more of a nip than a bite. The sightings generally describe a reptile 3 to 5 feet long, which would make it a youngster in crocodile terms.

Of course, "the trouble with little crocodiles is they grow up to be big crocodiles," noted Lev Fishelson, a professor of zoology at Tel Aviv University.

Mr. Hoter, for one, is already taking no chances.

"On our hiking tours, we are not taking people on routes we would normally go in the summer, down by the lake, because we don't want to take chances," he said.

"It's very dangerous," he contended. "It's not like a lion, for instance, that runs away from man. Crocodiles are different. Where they live in Africa and America, we know they eat humans."

There is nothing to prevent a crocodile from feeling right at home in the Sea of Galilee, which is called Lake Kinneret in Israel. The water is pure, and there are at least 27 species of fish -- along with assorted turtles, waterfowl and bank-side animals -- for a reptile's dining pleasure.

Alligators are native only to America and some parts of Southeast Asia, but crocodiles used to live in this region. A small creek south of Haifa is called Nahal Taninim -- Crocodile River. Priests and pilgrims who slogged through the swamps there three centuries ago reported encountering crocodiles and hippopotamuses, according to Mr. Fishelson.

The last native crocodile, a female carrying eggs, was killed in the early part of this century. Its hide still is at a museum in Jerusalem. But there are plenty of new sources for a crocodile invasion of the Kinneret from any of several commercial alligator and crocodile farms in Israel.

Immediate suspicions centered on Hamat Gader, a park just east of the Sea of Galilee containing hot springs, Roman ruins and 2,000 crocodiles and alligators in fenced-in pools.

"Our alligators could not get to the Kinneret," insisted Gila Linton, an official of the park, which is run by four kibbutzim. "They cannot escape. And nobody would jump in the pool to get one."

Hamat Gader keeps its bigger reptiles for tourists and sells the smaller ones to a kibbutz that processes the skin.

Ms. Linton says the rumors of a creature in the Kinneret are overblown.

"I think somebody imagined something. They saw something moving and thought it was an alligator," she said. Besides, "it's not so dangerous as people say. An alligator is usually afraid of people."

Usually. And crocodiles, she admitted, are "a little bit more dangerous. In the summer, they are a little more aggressive."

Despite the sightings, searchers have come up with no firm evidence of such a creature: no footprints on the shore, no half-mangled ducks.

The Sea of Galilee has 27 miles of shoreline and is about 120 feet deep, but with searches going on daily, evidence likely would be found.

"I don't believe a beast is in there," said Svi Ortenberg, chairman of the Lake Kinneret Authority, an area council. With an eye to the tourist trade, he sought to put the best spin on this tale: "Nobody is afraid. People are coming to see if it's true. The beaches are full."

But he acknowledged that too-close a sighting might be bad for business. "I guess it's not so pleasant to see such a beast a half-meter from you," he reflected.

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