60 Minutes Presents: Going to Extremes

A look back at a few of our favorite stories about people willing to go to extremes in pursuit of their passions

The following is a script from "60 Minutes Presents: Going to Extremes" which aired on Dec. 29, 2013.

Good evening, I'm Steve Kroft and welcome to 60 Minutes Presents.

There are, in this world, people driven to take risks, and we've met many of them over the years on 60 Minutes. People who are willing to go to extremes in pursuit of their passions. Tonight, a few of our favorites.

The Birdmen


 For hundreds of years, fully-grown adults and very young children have dreamed about flying. People have made wings out of feathers and wood and jumped off buildings and cliffs in order to soar like a bird. And a lot of them have died trying.

Now, a small group of extreme sportsmen wearing specially-made "wingsuits" have come about as close as you can get to flying outside the confines of an airplane, at least for a minute or two. Some people call them "birdmen." We first learned about them on the Internet. The pictures we saw were so spectacular, a few years back we decided to assemble some of the sport's top athletes, and mount a small expedition to one of the most beautiful places on Earth to see what this is all about.


 Tom Erik Heiman: Three, two, one. We're on the base.

JT Holmes: There he goes. He's going to come around the corner. There he is, always high.

Julian Boulle:  Nice.

Steve Kroft: You can hear him already.

JT Holmes: Yeah.

JT Holmes is an American, a professional skier, from Lake Tahoe.

Julian Boulle: Man, I've got like little goose bumps from that speed, huh?

Julian Boulle is a South African living in France, a skydiver and aerial photographer par excellence. And that's Tom Erik Heiman, one of our Norwegian hosts darting across the valley.

JT Holmes: I just love-- just you know, feeling that speed and watching stuff go by...shhh.

Steve Kroft: And how fast you'd go in?

JT Holmes: That was probably about a 140-150 mile-an-hour flyby.

Steve Kroft: That sound is amazing to me.

JT Holmes: Did you feel it?

Steve Kroft: Yeah.

JT Holmes: It's so cool to watch, I mean just (gesturing).

If you want to do this, there is no better time or place than the Romsdal Valley of Norway during the summer solstice, a paradise of fjords and farms several hundred miles northwest of Oslo. Myth has it that Norway's trolls lived here amidst the waterfalls and some of the tallest, sheerest cliffs in Europe. Norwegians have been parachuting off them for decades. Birdmen take the extreme sport to new extremes, dropping off a cliff and free-falling until the air inflates the wings of their nylon suits and propels them forward.

JT Holmes: The dive creates the speed. And you use that speed to glide out and, you know, fly flatter.

Gravity makes it impossible for them to go up, or even maintain altitude. For every two feet JT glides forward, he drops a foot. But the suit allows him to stay aloft three times longer than a skydiver.

JT Holmes: Within a few seconds, of course, that suit, that wind is going to fill up, that suit is going to pressurize and you're going to have total control.

Steve Kroft: How long you've been doing this?

JT Holmes: About five years.

Steve Kroft: What's special about the wingsuits?

JT Holmes: You know, it's just like so many children dream. It's flying.

Steve Kroft: You feel like you're flying?

JT Holmes: Well, I am flying. So, yes, I do, very much, feel like I'm flying.

"You know, it's just like so many children dream. It's flying."

Steve Kroft: Like a bird?

JT Holmes: Yeah. Just like a bird, a bird that can't flap his wings and go up. The birds probably laugh at us. They're probably just like, look at these guys.

They have long grown bored of simply flying over the valleys. In order to maximize the sensation of speed, they need a visual reference point. So they fly just a few feet from the rock face.

Steve Kroft: You're-- sometimes you're flying so close to these cliffs, it looks like you could reach out and touch them and you are going 100 miles an hour, 140 miles an hour.

JT Holmes: Yeah, it feels--

Steve Kroft: There's not much margin for error there.

JT Holmes: --it feels entirely in control. And the speed actually increases your stability and it increases your safety margin, because with the speed that we're flying with, you can create lift. And you know you can pop up and fly away at any time. That-- there's margin there.

[Ready, set, go.]

Steve Kroft: How quickly can you turn?

JT Holmes: I don't even know how to turn. You just do it. You just-- you know, you just look where you want to go and you just go there. And you just feel it and you go. You're like, "Yeah, let's go fast. This feels good. The faster I go the more control I have." And you’re just charged with it.

To the extent that JT and the others ever get nervous, it usually comes at a time that many people might consider one of the most mundane legs of the trip, when the end is in sight.

Steve Kroft: What is the most dangerous part of this?

JT Holmes: The most important thing is to open that parachute, you know. Just that moment when you reach back and throw the pilot chute out there which extracts your parachute. That's the most critical thing. I mean, if you don't do that, you're not going to live through it.

But getting down the mountain, which only takes a minute or so, is just part of the extreme sport. The much longer and more arduous part involves scaling the mountains you're going to jump off in the first place.

Steve Kroft: How long does it take you to get up to the ledge where you go from?

JT Holmes: This-- this one's about an hour and a half. But, you know, some of them were up to four, five, six hours for the big, big mountains around here.

There are no chairlifts, which explains why JT, Julian, and Tom Erik are members of such a small and exclusive club. You have to be a skilled climber, an accomplished skydiver, and an experienced outdoorsman to even attempt to do this.

JT Holmes: You know, it is that first view, looking over the edge that really hits you. You’re like, "Whoa, cool. This is an amazing spot to fly."

Julian Boulle: Money can’t buy you this experience. You’ve got to have the passion to do your time. If you haven’t done the time, you just can’t get there. You can’t arrive with like $10,000 and buy a wingsuit experience.

Steve Kroft: What do you have to know? What kind of skills do you have to have to be able to do what you do?

JT Holmes: You need to just have some mountain sense. You know, what-- how long am I going to be? What if something goes wrong? How long is it going to be until I can get back, if the weather comes in? How-- you need to know yourself. How much water do I need to have? Can I realistically walk up this mountain for two hours? Or is that not within my physical capabilities?

"Money can’t buy you this experience. You’ve got to have the passion to do your time. If you haven’t done the time, you just can’t get there. You can’t arrive with like $10,000 and buy a wingsuit experience."

JT Holmes: Yesterday, I jumped from--

It all looks spontaneous, but the birdmen put together a detailed plan every time they jump.

[Man: There’s still some fog coming in.]

And they almost always have help from the locals who serve as spotters, keeping them posted on weather conditions and potential problems on the ground.

Steve Kroft: Do you ever get spooked up there?

JT Holmes: I have, yeah. In-- in-- on a-- on a couple of occasions, I’ve had no real good reason for not jumping, but I just walk back down.

Julian Boulle: We’re trying to get people to understand that we’re not crazy. We just want to have fun like everybody else. And we want to share nature like everyone else. We just have our own special way of doing it.

Espen Fadnes: If you die base jumping it is your own fault. It is your own mistakes that makes that happen.

Steve Kroft: Do you think about it, I mean, when you’re up there on the top of the mountain, you’re getting ready to go. And you all shake hands and say. Do you think about the possibility?

JT Holmes: Yeah, but we don’t think like, "Oh, I may not see you again. I better say-- better say goodbye, give me a kiss."

Steve Kroft: That never enters your mind? Come on.

JT Holmes: If you do crash when you’re flying your wingsuit, you’re going to die. Nobody lives through that. You’re just going too fast.

JT was just 15 when his dad took him helicopter skiing. Today, he’s one of the best in the world at it, making a living endorsing products and making movies for top-of-the-line production companies like MSP Films.

Steve Kroft: You’re a professional skier.

JT Holmes: Yeah. Yeah, it’s a great job.

Steve Kroft: I mean, in your day job, you could-- there are any number of ways you could kill yourself in your day job. And for fun, you take on something that’s maybe even more dangerous?

JT Holmes: Um, yeah, I do dangerous things.

He and his friend Shane McConkey were the first to ski off mountains wearing their wingsuits then they jettison their skis so they could fly down the mountain.

Steve Kroft: You lost a good friend recently?

JT Holmes: Yeah, I did. Yeah.

Steve Kroft: Shane?

JT Holmes: Uh-huh (affirm).

Steve Kroft: He was supposed to be with us here?

JT Holmes: Yeah, he was. We planned this trip to meet up with you guys then I took off to Europe and that was when he died.

Steve Kroft: You were with him?

JT Holmes: Yep.

Shane crashed in Italy because he was unable to release his ski bindings quickly enough so he could begin flying.

How did it affect you?

JT Holmes: It saddened me deeply. You know, I miss my friend.

Steve Kroft: Did it make you think about quitting?

JT Holmes: Yeah.

Steve Kroft: But you didn’t.

JT Holmes: No. No I didn’t-- I didn’t-- didn’t quit. I-- at least I haven’t quit yet.

Near the end of our stay, we chartered a helicopter for the biggest adventure of our visit. We were going to the top of one of the most famous mountains in Norway: Romsdalshorn. When JT and the others climb up here, they don’t even use ropes. The chopper saved us time and energy. It was a dizzying flight, not for the faint-hearted. From the air, our landing pad looked tiny but solid, a flat piece of rock. But when we touched down, it turned out to be an unstable patchwork of stone.

Steve Kroft: These guys said that this was like the size of two football fields. This is like the size of an NBA basketball court.

Julian Boulle: For a summit, it’s huge. You could throw a party up here for New Year’s Eve.

Steve Kroft: I’m busy New Year’s Eve.

It was early summer, but we were a mile above the valley floor and the temperature was just above freezing.

JT Holmes: It’s kind of half the battle just getting in these things, though, you know? You kind of feel like you’re climbing into the tight cockpit.

They had a pre-flight checklist: making sure their zippers were closed, parachutes well-packed, and there were no rips in their wingsuits. It was time to go to what they call the exit point.

So you’re having fun?

Tom Erik Heiman: Yeah. I am enjoying myself.

Steve Kroft: I wish I could say the same thing. I am not crazy about heights.

By his count, JT has jumped off mountains like this 125 times. But there is a bit of the first time every time he does it.

JT Holmes: OK. I feel, you know, kind of butterflies in my stomach and you-- you just feel like a flow of adrenaline.

Tom Erik and his Norwegian friend, Espen, were the first to take the plunge.

Espen Fadnes: Yeah.

Steve Kroft: So are you psyched right now?

JT Holmes: Yeah.

Steve Kroft: That’s the way you describe--

JT Holmes: For sure.

Steve Kroft: --pump.

JT Holmes: Yeah.

Steve Kroft: You’re pumped?

JT Holmes: Yeah, I’m fired up. I want to go. Can I go?

Steve Kroft: Go.

We decided not to follow JT down the last few steps to the ledge where he was going to jump. And we were glad we didn’t. He then collected himself and took a couple of deep breaths.

Steve Kroft: Do you ever have trouble pulling the trigger?

[Julian Boulle: OK, we’re ready.]

JT Holmes: No. No, I don’t. But, you know, you do sometimes have trouble finding that calm moment. You know? And-- and then you’re just like, OK, well-- if this is about as calm as I’m going to get this time.

[Julian Boulle: OK. Ready. Set. Go.]

JT Holmes: You know, you-- you can step off and it’s-- it’s like you’re an astronaut, you’re just weightless. And then you start fall, and you get the wind and that’s when you’re gaining speed and I really enjoy that part.You know, air’s air, gravity’s gravity. You know, you’re carving through just beautiful stuff there.

For some of these pictures, Julian was our cameraman. And at one point, he and JT were flying so close together, in such perfect formation that there was time for a birdmen high-five, half a mile up at 140 miles an hour. It was an exhilarating moment, but it wasn’t the last.

JT Holmes: Whoo-hoo.

Over the next few days, they kept on jumping, saving the best for last.

JT Holmes: Ready. Set. Go.

JT Holmes: And you’re just flying along the wall on your right, and at that point, I don’t really know what’s going on. Is Julian there or not? I assume he is because he’s so good. But on this jump, I can see our shadows, and I am like, "Oh, my God, I’m sick. He’s right there." Every jump is like a little mini-adventure. These are experiences that I only want to share with people that I love and respect. It’s a goody.

Tom Erik Heiman: It’s a goody. Thanks.

JT Holmes: Yeah, buddy, good trip.

Tom Erik Heiman: Good trip.

JT Holmes: We’ve done it again (laughing).

Tom Erik Heiman: Yeah.

Julian Boulle: You think anybody else had as much fun as us today in the entire world?

JT Holmes: I don't think so. I really don’t think so.

Julian Boulle: I don’t think it’s possible.

Tom Erik Heiman: No.

Spy on Ice

 If you've ever enjoyed the sight of polar bears, this story is for you because you're about to see them as you never have before. For this, you can thank the ice-breaking work of John Downer, the British filmmaker who's spent two years getting to know them. It wasn't easy. Polar bears frequent the most forbidding part of the planet. It's tough to get there. And once you do, it's really cold. Polar bears are also difficult to spot -- white on white is not easy on the eye.

In the past, they'd been filmed from a distance, which is advisable. Polar bears are dangerous. But as Bob Simon reported two years ago, John Downer wanted to get up close and survive. So he needed new tricks. He came up with forms of surveillance which could make the CIA proud. Downer's film, "Spy on the Ice," takes you inside their world. Tonight, we'll show you how he does it.

You may have seen polar bears shot like this before but have you ever seen them like this: close-up, intimate, just doing what polar bears do, sometimes even treading on thin ice? Probably not. And that's because they're not being shot at the end of a long lens right now. They're being filmed by spies.

For the last two years, they've been under constant surveillance, scrutinized by snowballs, by mounds of snow, by tiny icebergs drifting in the seas. They're cameras, of course, but the nearest cameraman can be miles away. We're up in the Arctic Circle, chillingly close to the North Pole. We've traveled to remote places before but never on an icebreaker. We were invited onboard by John Downer, the Englishman who has revolutionized the way wildlife films are made with espionage, cunning espionage.

Bob Simon: What's the idea of a spy cam?

John Downer: Well, the thing about a spy cam is it actually gets you closest to the animals. You're in the scene, you're in the picture. You're picking up a magic that you cannot capture with a normal camera. It's just like a secret world.

If the lion is the king of the jungle, then the polar bear is the king of the ice. He's at the top of the food chain here on the top of the world, and he's revered by the few people who live in the Arctic Circle. They call him "God's dog" or the "ever-wandering one," because he can roam hundreds of miles searching for seals.

"Well, the thing about a spy cam is it actually gets you closest to the animals. You're in the scene, you're in the picture. You're picking up a magic that you cannot capture with a normal camera. It's just like a secret world."


 That is, on ice. But in summertime, there's less ice, so some bears get stuck on dry land, where they have to scavenge to stay alive. Downer and his crew plant their spy cams wherever they think a hungry chap might pass by. They do it quickly because it's dangerous up here. It's illegal to leave your boat without an armed escort. We had two.

John Downer: Polar bears see something on two legs, they think, well that might be food. Everything it sees that moves in this environment could be food. And, of course, food is everything in this world.

The cameras are triggered by motion, and there isn't much motion up here that isn't a polar bear. The remains of this whale carcass looked appetizing. Bears were bound to come around, even though there wasn't much meat left on the bone.

John Downer: First tuck back in there. You want-- you want rocks?

Phil Dalton: Yeah, that's perfect.

John Downer: I think this is a good shot.

Bob Simon: It's all in the positioning. What you need more than anything else is a wild imagination.

John Downer: Yeah. Wild. That's right. And, you know, some commitment to have a mad dream and then carry it through.

But not mad enough to hang around very long. Bears are rather rapid. They can do a hundred meters in nine seconds. That means they can outrun the world's fastest sprinter.

John Downer: You can see the polar bear is not far.

Bob Simon: Now at this time of year, would this polar bear presumably be hungry?

John Downer: Very hungry. Yeah, we'll keep an eye on him.

Bob Simon: And he's keeping an eye on us.

John Downer: I mean that's fine at that distance.

Bob Simon: That is as long as there isn't another bear behind us.

John Downer: Well, there are other bears behind us but-- and we can't see them.

Phil Dalton: We've got to go.

John Downer: OK.

Phil Dalton: The bear's coming.

Bob Simon: He's looking right at us now.

John Downer: Yeah, I think now is the time to go. The bear is-- distance is getting a little bit closer. I think we need to get back onboard now.

Back in the safety of the mother ship, Downer's technical wizard, Geoff Bell, is innovating by the minute. Bell had been a model airplane designer for years when Downer realized how useful his talents and his toys could be in the espionage game.

Bob Simon: You've used the word toys and you started doing this when you were how old, 7?

Geoff Bell: 7, yeah.

Bob Simon: Yeah.

Geoff Bell: Yeah. And the only difference as you know between men and boys is the price of the toys. So you know, that's what we do-- we're hobbyists and gone into it professionally.

Bell has just perfected what he calls an iceberg cam, which does double duty--above the water and down below. The camera catches the action when a bear goes under, feet last, to check out that whale carcass.

John Downer: This is so good. Fantastic. There she comes and feeds.

Bob Simon: Wow. This is one cool bear, isn't it?

Geoff Bell: Yeah, yeah, very cool.

John Downer: It's done exactly what we wanted absolutely on time.

Exactly what the bear wanted, too: lunch. What her cub seemed to want was to be on camera.

Bob Simon: Don't tell me that she's not mugging for the camera. Look at that, full-faced shot, relaxed. I wonder how they'd react if they could see themselves on television.

John Downer: I'm sure they would be very pleased to be on 60 Minutes. Very proud. This is great. They're so relaxed around it-- very-- fantastic scene.

But mama bear doesn't seem to think so. She takes out her disappointment on the hapless camera. This film, "Spy on the Ice," is the latest in Downer's 30-year career, which began with the BBC's Natural History Unit. First project, he wanted to capture what it's like to be a bird. That meant flying with one. So he trained a duck from the time its egg hatched to think of him as its father.

Bob Simon: You were the daddy of a duck.

John Downer: I was the-- I was the daddy.

Bob Simon: How did it feel?

John Downer: I was the daddy. I had to take it to the office. It came with me as it was growing up. It would be in the car when I was driving along. It would even go to the dinner parties. I always had to go everywhere with this duck.

Eventually, he took the duck and his camera 200 feet up in a parasail. He had never flown before.

John Downer: And when we were up at altitude, I released this duck. And within a few seconds, it formatted next to me, and was flying alongside me, literally, a foot away from my head.

Bob Simon: John, you flew with a duck.

John Downer: Yep. One of my first filming experiences was flying with a duck. And I think very early on in my career I started to realize, you know, what it's like to be that animal.

What's it like to be a lion? Downer explored that in his film "Spy in the Den." The stars were not only lions, but Sir David Attenborough, the world's most respected naturalist.

[Sir David Attenborough: This, as you may have guessed, is no ordinary film about lions. Some of its sequences were gained in the most extraordinary way. This remote camera, disguised as a boulder, has been able to go into the very heart of the pride.]

How about tigers, the most elusive of predators? Downer got to four cubs when they were 10 days old. It was the first time anyone had filmed them that young. There they were with their protective mother, who just wouldn't let go. And Downer wouldn't let go either. He was with them to celebrate their first birthday, and stayed with them for the next three years. How did he do it? By enlisting the ultimate all terrain camera vehicles--elephants. He mounted trunk cams and tusk cams, and the tigers were not at all self-conscious because elephants have always been part of their world. And in Downer's world, the gravest sin is to do something that does not astonish his viewers. That requires a lot of patience and a lot of tape. He shoots seventeen hours of material for every minute that makes the cut.

John Downer: Every time I make a film on a new subject, I want to interpret that animal in a way that hasn't been before, and I-- that's really what drives me. I think if you're approaching a subject afresh and really trying to get new insights. You can never bore the audience.

Africa's famous wildebeest migration has been filmed hundreds of times, but not with a croc cam, or a skull cam, or a dung cam. That's right, an HD camera smothered in dung. Somebody had to do it. How about the toy man, Geoff Bell?

Bob Simon: Geoff had to spread the dung on the camera?

John Downer: Yes.

Bob Simon: Did he get a bonus for that?

John Downer: It's all part of the job.

Downer says his toughest job has been right up here because of the hostile environment and the fact that his subjects are so hard to find. But on the bridge of the icebreaker, he and producer Phil Dalton showed us what might just be the most extraordinary polar bear sequence ever filmed. The snow cams were placed outside a den, where a bear stays for six months to give birth to and rear her cub. Then Dalton went away, far away.

Phil Dalton: It was about 60 miles away.

Bob Simon: Sixty miles?

Phil Dalton: Yeah.

Bob Simon: You were 60 miles away from that camera?

Phil Dalton: While this was being filmed, yeah. I mean, we had no idea it was going on, really.

When he retrieved the camera 10 days later, this is what Dalton saw--the snow mysteriously being wiped off the lens. How? With a paw.

John Downer: There's the cub, there's the cub, the first glimpse of the cub.

Bob Simon: This is the cub's first look at the world.

John Downer: It is.

His brave new white world.

John Downer: We couldn't have dreamt that we would get something like this. This here-- we've got this wonderful situation, here the mother right in the camera. The cam-- the-- the-- the bears seem to be doing the camera work. And the-- what happens-- this is actually quite magical because you feel you really are alone with these bears in the moment.

Phil Dalton: She pushes the camera down the hill here.

Bob Simon: Wow.

John Downer: So, miraculously, the camera is still in the middle of frame.

Bob Simon: Great.

And, miraculously, they not only followed the camera, but the mother reframes the shot.

John Downer: For me, this has a certain magic and innocence about it in the way the cub and the mum are just there alone with the cameras in their world. And those little glimpses, and they're wandering off. And this is the start of their journey, you know, which is going to be thousands of miles.

Probably never to be seen again by the likes of us. They'll just keep wandering, roaming on the ice as long as it's there.

Nile Crocodile


 Of all the different species of crocodiles in the world, Africa's Nile crocodile is the most dangerous and deadly. They can grow up to 20 feet long, weigh as much as a car, and bite as hard as a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Crocodiles are prehistoric creatures that have been around since the time of the dinosaurs, but we still don't know a lot about them because studying them up close on land is treacherous, and underwater was always thought to be impossible.

As Anderson Cooper reported last March, two wildlife filmmakers in Botswana in southern Africa have found a way to get up close to crocs in the murky waters of the Okavango Delta. The images they've captured are some of the most remarkable wildlife scenes we've ever seen.

The Okavango Delta has been called one of the last Eden's on earth. The hundreds of miles of winding waterways and untouched islands are home to some of Africa's most exotic and enchanting wildlife. It's also home to thousands of Nile crocodiles. For the last five years, Brad Bestelink and his wife, Andy Crawford, have been risking their lives filming these man-eaters in the most daring way imaginable: following the crocodiles into their underwater lairs.


Has Anderson Cooper gone mad? That was our re... 07:22
 It is a dark and foreboding world down there, visibility is sometimes only a few feet and you can't even see the crocodiles until you catch a glimpse of their long rows of razor sharp white teeth.

Anderson Cooper: How did you know you could do this?

Brad Bestelink: We were next to a ledge. And this crocodile swam out. And actually swam between us. And then settled on the ground next to us.

Anderson Cooper: What first went through your mind?

Andy Crawford: Well, just lots of bubbles?

Brad Bestelink: Bubbles.

Andy Crawford: And just panic.

The panic was understandable. Nile crocodiles are Africa's largest and most feared predator but surprisingly this one didn't attack. Brad and Andy have been getting closer and closer to these creatures ever since.

Brad Bestelink: You do get a different sense of them. They look very beautiful underwater. They're dappled and gold and black. And you see them as more timid I think. Beyond the teeth and the terror there's this incredible creature that is actually an amazing animal in its own right.

Anderson Cooper: You actually think they're beautiful.

Andy Crawford: I do think they're beautiful. I never used to think they were beautiful. But this is a whole different view of them.

"Beyond the teeth and the terror there's this incredible creature that is actually an amazing animal in its own right."

This is the view most people have of Nile crocodiles. Patient and stealthy killers, they grab their prey, drag them into the water then drown and dismember them. And it's not just animals they eat, hundreds of people in Africa are killed each year while bathing, laundering clothes, or fishing along the waters' edge.

Nile crocodiles are now protected in Botswana, but Brad and Andy believe more needs to be known about their behavior in part so that humans can better avoid them. They've invited Dr. Adam Britton, an Australian zoologist, to dive with them.

Anderson Cooper: When you first heard about what they were doing here, what did you think?

Adam Britton: Look, I'll be honest. When I first heard about this, my instant, immediate reaction was "That sounds crazy."

Doctor Britton has been studying crocodiles for more than 18 years.

Adam Britton: I describe crocodile like Ferraris. They're just extremely finely honed creatures. They are just perfectly adapted to do what they do. They're, you know, the smartest of all the reptiles.

Britton is building a genetic database on Nile crocodiles in the Delta to better understand how to protect them. For years the only way to study them up close was to capture them.

Brad Bestelink: Croc on. So once I've got him by the mouth...

It is difficult, dangerous work.

Adam Britton: Sit on him, get his legs back. Pin his legs between his knees as well. He's got no leverage.

Anderson Cooper: So what are you doing now?

Adam Britton: I am just going to cover his eyes so that he can't see what we're doing.

Anderson Cooper: So he's not injured at all?

Adam Britton: No, no, he's not injured at all, apart from his pride perhaps.

This crocodile is not sedated. It's simply trying to conserve its energy.

Anderson Cooper: Why are you doing this?

Adam Britton: If we can get a sample of all the DNA from every single crocodile across the Delta then we can start to build up a picture then of exactly, not only where these crocodiles came from, but how they're moving within the Delta.

Anderson Cooper: Because right now you don't really know that?

Adam Britton: No one knows anything about that.

Anderson Cooper (on camera): When you actually see the crocodiles up close, there is a beauty to them. Often in pictures they're covered in mud. They look very drab. But up close, you see the variety of color not just on the top, but also on the bottom. And to the touch it's really-- there's a softness to them, particularly on the feet like this. The claws are about an inch, an inch and a half. But the pads of the feet are actually incredibly soft.

Capturing crocodiles is stressful for the animal and for us. Putting them back in the water is just as hard.

Adam Britton: Keep pressing down Anderson on the top of the skull. That's good.

Anderson Cooper: Noose ready to go.

Adam Britton: OK. Three, two, one go.

Diving with Brad and Andy has given Dr. Adam Britton a whole new understanding of crocodiles and their underwater world.

Adam Britton: You're in the water. You've got the current washing over you. You can feel the changes in temperature. And you suddenly think, "This is what it's like to be a crocodile. This crocodile is experiencing these same things."

Britton has actually begun to take DNA samples from crocodiles underwater, cutting off pieces of their tales and, incredibly, they don't seem to mind.

Diving with Nile Crocodiles is only possible in the winter months when the water is chilly, and the animals are sluggish. These cold blooded reptiles are far too dangerous to dive with in the summer.

"You're in the water. You've got the current washing over you. You can feel the changes in temperature. And you suddenly think, 'This is what it's like to be a crocodile. This crocodile is experiencing these same things.'"

Brad Bestelink: The crocs are much more active. They're much more inclined to want to predate. You know, I don't--

Anderson Cooper: Predate, attack.

Brad Bestelink: Attack, yeah. They want to go and eat something.

Anderson Cooper: So, two months from now, three months from now, you would not dive in these waters.

Brad Bestelink: No. No. No, and I don't. I don't want to die. Make no mistake. I do this because I get an understanding as to how these predators work.

Brad and Andy offer to take me diving with them, explaining it's crucial to get off the surface of the water as quickly as possible because that is where crocs attack.

Andy Crawford: That's the most important thing. Because as soon as you're underwater we believe the crocodiles don't know what we are. They don't recognize us as prey.

Anderson Cooper: You say, "We believe." Do you know?

Andy Crawford: We don't know it for sure. We can never know how they're perceiving us. We're trying to establish how they perceive us.

Anderson Cooper: You're not really building my confidence here by saying you're not sure. What do I need to know before going in?

Andy Crawford: Well, you need to know we believe you're safe. With all that uncertainty, we believe you're safe.

Safe? Take a look at a recent encounter they had with a crocodile.

Brad Bestelink: You see how close he comes to me?

Anderson Cooper: And look at the eye.

Brad Bestelink: Yah.

Anderson Cooper: And look at those teeth. Those are huge.

Brad Bestelink: They are.

This crocodile was 12 feet long and weighed about 14 hundred pounds

Brad Bestelink: And there's a diver. And watch what he does.

Anderson Cooper: Oh my gosh.

Anderson Cooper: So but because the croc's moving, it doesn't even really sense that diver there.

Brad Bestelink: It didn't even know that he was there. And you'll see how it just goes, it hits his light and squashes his light.

Anderson Cooper: So it just thinks that some--

Brad Bestelink: Yep. Yeah. Yeah.

Anderson Cooper: --debris or tree or something? That's amazing.

We set off early the next day. It's an hour up river to a spot that has a lot of underwater caves. Three divers will go in with me: Brad, cameraman Richard Uren and Andy. She will be the safety diver watching our backs.

Male voice: I'll let you know that there's a croc if I see it first.

Andy Crawford: The sign of crocodile is that. That's the sign--

Anderson Cooper: It's the international sign for crocodile?

Female voice: That's the sign for-- well, it's a sign for crocodile.

Anderson Cooper: OK, OK, good.

Female voice: Brad does this.

Anderson Cooper: I didn't learn that in SCUBA school, they didn't teach that.

Andy Crawford: We're gonna give you one of these to dive with. It makes you feel better. It also gives you some barrier--

Anderson Cooper: Makes you feel better? That's really all it's for is just to make me feel better?

Andy Crawford: Well, mainly that, and actually-- to actually anchor yourself in the current.

Anderson Cooper: Because no matter what, you do not want to drift onto --

Andy Crawford: You don't want to drift onto the crocodile.

As soon as the crocs see our boat they disappear. We hope they've gone to the bottom to hide in underwater caves, but they might still be floating near the surface waiting to attack.

It's a very strange feeling before you go diving because you know there are crocodiles in the area but you don't see any on the surface. The problem is as the boat comes in any motion on the surface does tend to attract crocodiles so you want to try to get here and into the water and to the bottom as quickly as possible.

We suit up, do our final checks and then take the plunge.

Brad Bestelink: Anderson good? OK.

We get to the river bottom as quickly as we can. It's only about 15 feet deep. Thankfully, the visibility is good and we find ourselves in a stunning underwater garden with overhanging ledges, walls of papyrus, submerged trees and lilies.

Anderson Cooper: We know there's at least one crocodile in this area because we saw the ripples on the water. We believe it's gone into a nearby cave system and we are going to go into the caves right now to try to see if we can find it.

It's eerie and intimidating down here. The only light comes from our cameras, and it's easy to lose your way.

Brad signals that he sees a crocodile. At first I can't see anything, but then out of the darkness, on the floor of the cave, just as Brad warned, I see that gleaming row of white teeth.

Anderson Cooper: To finally see one. It's amazing there's a beauty to it, but it's also incredibly intimidating. You really have a sense when you're so close to it of just how strong it is. And it looks right at you, and you know and it knows that it could attack you at any moment. And there is nothing you can do about it.

The crocodile disappears into the darkness. We push further into the cave. It gets narrower and more claustrophobic as we move deeper into the gloom. Then, lurking on a nearby ledge there's another crocodile.

Anderson Cooper: This crocodile is about nine feet long. Its tail though makes up half its length. Crocs have the amazing ability to actually slow their heart rate down and they can close off one of the valves in their heart, to stop the blood flow to some of its organs and allows them to stay underwater for hours at a time.

Anderson Cooper: It's amazing how close the crocodile is. You can't tell if it's watching you or not.

Suddenly the crocodile backs away. It's not taking its eyes off me. I have no idea what it's going to do. My heart is pounding. Neither of us moves. Then with a flick of his tail, he's off.

We move further through the undergrowth and find yet another crocodile. This time it's facing me head on. On the stick I'm holding I have a small camera and I move it closer to try and get a better shot. I know I should be terrified but the truth is it's actually thrilling.


How do crocodiles kill? 02:21
 Anderson Cooper: It's extraordinary that I can get so close. I'm literally looking at it right in the face, staring at it face to face. The crocodile's front vision is not very good ... so this is actually a relatively safe place to be. The crocodile is also laying low, which is a good sign. If it felt threatened, it would rise up on its feet. That would be an indication it might be ready to strike.

When it finally takes off, we start following it. The crocodile is kicking up so much sand and sediment, we can't see where we're going.

Anderson Cooper: We are trying to pursue the crocodile right now, but I can't tell how large it is. Its tail is so powerful I am almost right on top of it. I can reach out right now and just touch the tail, but I am worried if do that it will somehow turn around. It just doesn't seem like a good idea. But I got to say it's so tempting.

The croc is moving so fast, we can't keep up for long. It's time to surface and find the boat.

Anderson Cooper: Wow that was amazing. I was right on top of it.

Brad Bestelink: Hey?

Anderson Cooper: I was right on top of its tail. I mean, I could have touched it.

Brad Bestelink: Yah, I know. And then he turns around.

Anderson Cooper: And then he turns around! I swear there was a moment where I thought, "Jesus, he could just attack. And there's nothing I could do about it."

Brad Bestelink: Absolutely. But did you ever feel like he was going to attack?

Anderson Cooper: No. Well, maybe a little bit actually.

I've dived with Great White sharks before, but in terms of numbers of people killed each year, Nile crocodiles are far more deadly. Once ruthlessly hunted, still vilified as mindless killing machines, we can finally observe them as they really are: perfectly evolved denizens of the dark, ancient creatures, now for the first time, fully visible in the light.