A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I travelled to Indonesia to do some research for my undergraduate thesis. I was working with a prof who did coral research, which meant our group spent all day every day on the reef. It was a sweet gig. Our fearless leader, Dr R, was unflappable. He had a thousand stories of things that had gone wrong here and there in his travels, but, since nothing really fazed him, somehow those stories never came across as scary. So when he told me in all seriousness that I should be afraid of sea snakes, I was afraid of sea snakes. Investigating the matter supported that point of view. The very pretty sea krait (genus Laticauda), or tricot rayé as it is called in New Caledonia, is more poisonous than a cobra. Oh, and did I mention there is no antivenin? Right. Not good.
So let’s get down to business on sea snakes. Here I am, all blasé about sharks, but I’m afraid of a wiggler hardly the length of my arm? In a word: yes. Not terrified, not panicky – I just intend to give sea snakes a very wide berth. Luckily, the tricot rayé is with me on that. They live in the rocks ashore, hunt in the reefs, and don’t want anything to do with you. Once again, our “don’t be an idiot” advice applies. Don’t bug the snakes, and they won’t bug you.
This is sometimes easier said than done.
Last week, we took our visitors sailing between Noumea and Isle of Pines. A number of people had recommended Ilot Mato as a good halfway point, so we cheerfully stopped there for a day or two.
|Campfire, ignited via magnifying glass.|
We set up a base camp on the island, so the snorkellers could snorkel, the loungers could lounge, and we could all enjoy some chicken over the campfire when we were hungry. As we approached Ilot Mato on the dinghy, a big turtle raced by us in the other direction. Always a promising sign.
|Ho hum. More gorgeous scenery.|
While lunch was cooking, Indy and I went for a walk. The tide had fallen, leaving a large pebbly patch between us and our campsite. As we walked back, we heard Stylish shout, “Snake!”
Even though we were a hundred feet away, we froze. The people left at camp were all watching something disappear into the bushes. I breathed a sigh, and reminded myself that the snakes have no interest in us. I was about to take a step when I heard another shout: “Snake!”
I froze again. Because this time it was Indy yelling, and the snake was three feet in front of us. And it was not happy that I hadn’t seen it myself. In my defense, its black and gold rings blended in perfectly with the rocks. It watched us for a moment before sliding on its way.
|Sometimes camouflage is not your friend.|
Let’s pause here to dispose of a common myth. I can’t tell you how many people have suggested to me that sea snakes can’t bite you because their heads are too small to open that wide. Please. Human jaws are built differently than a snake’s jaws. Have you ever stopped to wonder how a python can swallow an antelope? If you take a peek over at LiveScience, you will see that a snake’s lower jaw is made of two bones connected by a ligament in front, and the upper and lower jaws are not rigidly attached. That is a recipe for some serious opening action. So if a snake wants to bite you, it can bite you. You rely solely on the snake’s good will to keep you from a bloodstream full of venom.
As the afternoon went on, the calls of “snake!” came ever more frequently. Some were in the water. Some were in the bushes. All of them wanted to slither through our camp.
|“Oh, am I disturbing you?”|
|“Why don’t I swim beside your boat instead?”|
By the end of the afternoon, Stylish put our tally at twelve live snakes, one dead one. And while my heart gave a flutter every time another scaly beast zipped past my kids on the sand, I did become resigned to the whole operation. No one got bitten. What more could I ask for?
We went on to Isle of Pines, and our snake sightings became less frequent. I decided that Ilot Mato was an isolated case. Evening came, and we enjoyed a coffee with our friends on the hotel porch while the girls did cartwheels in the sand.
And a tricot rayé emerged from the waves. And disappeared under the porch.
I guess our snake-watching days continue.