The St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park on Anastasia Island is one of the oldest attractions in and around St. Augustine, tracing its roots back to the early 1890s. Known for its various reptilian denizens displayed to the public, it is one of the only places in the world to exhibit every species of crocodilian alive. As such, the park of course housed and continues to house the largest and arguably most dangerous species: the saltwater crocodile, sometimes referred to as the Indo-Pacific crocodile. A native of Australia and the Indo-Pacific, these prehistoric titans can grow to be over twenty feet long and weigh upwards of one ton. Highly aggressive and capable swimmers, these animals have sometimes been spotted in the open ocean between islands in Indonesia, Australia, and Papua New Guinea.
Perhaps the most famous of these “salties” to be on display at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm was Gomek. His story begins halfway across the world, however, in Papua New Guinea. Gomek was likely born sometime in the 1930s, if not earlier, somewhere along the Fly River. He spent approximately the first forty years of his life there, attaining much of his adult size. By the time he was first captured in 1968 by Australian croc hunter George Craig, the crocodile was over fifteen feet long, weighing more than half a ton. Craig learned of the beast from natives living in a village at the junction of the Fly and Asur Rivers, who referred to the animal as “Louma Whalla Coremana Dikana.” Gomek was rumored to have been a man-eater, and very distinguishable physically from other local crocodiles. As one would, George Craig set out to capture the beast, finding luck not too terribly long after learning of the animal’s existence.
Capturing and securing the crocodile, Craig would bring it back to his store on the island of Daru, setting up a pen for it and a mate. Gomek soon received his name as well, named for a “particularly tight-fisted ‘skin-buyer’” that Craig knew. The giant crocodile ironically proved to be fairly calm in captivity, living on Daru for four years. As Papua New Guinea sought independence from Australia in the early 1970s, Gomek was moved along with thirty other crocodiles by Craig to a museum on Green Island, Australia, known as Marineland Melanesia. Here he would remain for thirteen years, until George Craig sold him to Arthur Jones, a “real-life soldier of fortune” who owned a large swathe of land in Ocala where he exhibited various exotic animals. In 1985, Gomek was flown to the United States, first staying on Arthur Jones’ ranch until 1989. Late that year, the giant crocodile arrived in St. Augustine, where he would live out the remaining eight years of his life.
1989 also saw the St. Augustine Alligator Farm receive accreditation by the American Zoological Association, which opened many doors for the institution and its owners, the Drysdale family. David Drysdale, owner of the Alligator Farm, knew Arthur Jones well, having become friends through another mutual friend. This eventually led to Drysdale purchasing the reptile collection that Jones had acquired over the years, Gomek included, and moving it to the St. Augustine facility. Gomek found himself in a much more luxurious enclosure, the same that now houses his successor, a saltwater crocodile named Maximo. Visitors could view the gentle giant from both above and below water, and they came in droves to see what was rumored to be the largest reptile on display in the United States. Nearly immediately, Gomek became the St. Augustine Alligator Farm’s main attraction. Marketing centered around his image and likeness, and word of the massive reptile spread not only across the state, but across the country. Sadly, however, Gomek’s story would come to an end in St. Augustine.
In early April of 1997, a keeper at the Alligator Farm noticed one day during his normal rounds that the giant crocodile was laying rather unusually on the bottom of his pool. Draining it after going for help, they discovered that Gomek had passed quietly. A necropsy was ordered from the University of Florida’s School of Veterinary Medicine, who worked and continues to work closely with the Alligator Farm. The results made clear that Gomek had died of a heart attack, which was not uncommon for a reptile of his age. He was assumed to have been between sixty and eighty years old when he died. After his death, Gomek was flown to a Jonas Brothers taxidermy shop in Colorado, where he was taxidermized and prepared for exhibition inside the Gomek Pavilion at the Alligator Farm. This indoor display features not only Gomek, but photographs, maps, and text panels which tell his tale, allowing him to remain an educational part of the Alligator Farm’s collection long after his passing.
Written by Robert Covert
The Legend of Gomek. Published by The St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park in 1999.