Black River is Jamaica’s widest river and home to our largest and most feared reptile, the American crocodile. Our crocodiles are only found along the south coast, and since the Black River is located in one of our southwestern parishes, this is perhaps the best place to see them up close. Run by J. Charles Swaby, the Black River Safari offers covered boat rides which take you out on the river where you’ll hopefully get a chance to see the crocs in their natural habitat. If you visit on a day where the crocs are shy, you won’t leave disappointed by the natural beauty of the river and its vegetation. Also, you’ll still get a chance at seeing them up close in the nursery which is included in each tour.
As is customary, I’ll describe the visit from capital city Kingston. Take the Washington Boulevard, Mandela Highway, Highway 2000 (South Coast Highway) then continue along the straight path through the parishes of Clarendon, Manchester and St. Elizabeth. You’ll drive through the famous and beautiful Holland Bamboo which is along A2.
Continue along the A2 then make a left when you get to the end of the road. You’ll pass over this metal bridge below, then voila! Entrance to the start of the safari tour is on your left. Ample parking spaces are available.
They’re open everyday and have specific tour times starting at 9am, 11am, 12:30pm and 3pm. Each tour lasts an hour. It costs JM$1,000 per person with local ID and US$15 I believe otherwise. They have a snack bar (thus I doubt outside food is allowed), restrooms and a waiting area with benches near the counter where you pay before the tour.
The Safari Tour
I took the 11am tour on a Sunday but it started a little late as they tried to round-up all their visitors to take the same tour since Sundays are slower days. It begins downstream where the water was a murky brown due to recent heavy showers, but gradually evolved to become a stunning shade of glossy ebony black. The water was a perfect looking-glass; I’ve literally never seen anything like it and I think I’ve seen my fair share of water bodies over the past two years. Interestingly enough, the water is crystal clear as our guide demonstrated by leaning over and filling a clear plastic water bottle. However, the riverbed’s soil is pitch black, coloured by the dyes produced from logwood trees which are grown along the riverbank, remnants of Jamaica’s logwood industry centuries-past. Hence the water appears black so the name Black River is a no-brainer. My knowledgeable guide pointed out the beautiful wetland plants such as red mangroves which tower high above the water on stilt-roots.
However beautiful the water and plants were, the crocs were the star of the show. After all, that’s what we came to see and we sighted three. They all have names and the guide knew exactly which part of the river to look for them. Only one revealed himself (her 🤔) well enough for a neat photograph while the other two lived up to their supposedly timid nature, revealing no more than a mere eye and snout above the water and paying us no more than a bored glance. That’s quite alright with me though!
The Croc Nursery
The nursery houses crocodiles at varying stages of the life cycle which were rather interesting to see! They’re no longer than a 12-inch ruler at birth then grow to reach adult lengths of 6.1m (20 feet) after a decade! As with many other species in the Animal Kingdom however, the females are smaller and rarely exceed 3.8 m (12.5 ft) in length as adults.
- American croc populations are found in southern Florida and the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of southern Mexico to as far south as Peru and Venezuela in South America. They also live on many of the Caribbean islands such as Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Grand Cayman.
- Adult American crocodiles have no natural predators and almost any terrestrial or riparian animal they encounter is potential prey. Of course, Man has been proving a formidable predator by destroying crocodile populations with not only habitat clearing but also poaching for leather and food. Yes, you read that right but this is an illegal act in Jamaica as these creatures are a vulnerable species and protected BY LAW.
- The habitat of the American crocodile consists largely of coastal areas. They are also found in river systems, but have a tendency to prefer, not merely to tolerate, some level of salinity, resulting in the species congregating in brackish lakes, mangrove swamps, lagoons, cays, and small islands. Thus, the mouth of the Black River suits them perfectly!
- Fish, reptiles, birds and small mammals make up the majority of their diet.
- The species is often reportedly timid and seemingly lacks the propensity to attack people as regularly as Old World crocodiles do. They mainly attack when provoked or if a nesting mother views you as threat to her offspring.
This was a quite an interesting trip with a lot to see! I really respect the conservation work which takes place at the safari too although admittedly and perhaps naïvely, I fail to appreciate how much different our lives and ecosystems would be without these creatures. (Don’t take me on in the comments 🤣). I think the tour would benefit from some crocodile-themed souvenirs in the store, a brochure or two sharing information about the crocs and local efforts in their conservation, some crocodile fun facts being included in the tour guides’ script and even an actual ticket stub or receipt as keepsake. Thus, I rate the experience itself four stars, ☆☆☆☆.
‘Til next time! ✌🏽🐊
***September 2019 Update: I visited again with a friend who’d never been before and wanted company. They added a fifth tour time at 2pm; the other 4 tour times are unchanged. Also, there’s a price increase. Tours for locals now cost JM$1,200. They have pretty nice souvenir carvings of birds and crocodiles on sale too. Here are some lovely additional photos I took on this 2nd trip.