Tag Archives: Sea snakes

Sea snakes seen sunning amid Great Barrier Reef

Published October 28, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Sea snakes, which carry venom used to paralyze prey, can make for good swimming and snorkeling companions, if one doesn’t fear them. ©2017 Susan Scott

KELSO REEF, AUSTRALIA >> After sitting out a week of rain in Magnetic Island Marina, we’re back in flat water, moored on another of the Great Barrier Reef’s pristine outer reefs. Snorkeling here at Kelso Reef is as good as it gets, but even so, we don’t have to get in the water to be thrilled. We just stand on the deck.

While sailing between the mainland and the outer reefs these last few weeks, we’ve seen four sea snakes sunbathing on the water’s surface. Three dived before we could turn the boat around for pictures, but one, a tan-colored beauty with dark saddles on its back, totally ignored us, continuing to nap as we circled.

The 15 species of sea snakes that live on Australia’s reefs are bold, because they’re packing. All carry cobra-type venom stored in cheek glands connected to two front fangs. Injected toxin paralyzes muscles almost immediately, handy for halting fast-swimming prey, such as the bottom-dwelling fish that most snakes like to eat.

The good news is that sea snakes don’t waste their venom on snorkelers or divers. Australia reports no deaths from sea snake bites.

Even though we’ve seen sea snakes basking on the water’s surface this month, I’ve not seen a single one while snorkeling. That’s partly by chance, but it may also be because some sea snakes don’t like to travel.

In a study of olive sea snakes, the Great Barrier Reef’s most common species, researchers found the snakes’ foraging areas were only half an acre. When workers moved some individuals from their home reef to an adjacent one 200 yards away, none crossed the sandy channel to get back.

Sea Snake. New Caledonia 2006

That might explain why sea snakes are common on some reefs and absent on others, but it makes me wonder about the snakes we see basking on the surface miles from the nearest coral reefs. Maybe like us humans, some sea snakes are wanderers and others are homebodies.

All sea snakes are air breathers, but because they have one cylindrical lung nearly as long as their bodies, they can stay submerged for up to two hours.

Olive sea snakes come in shades of solid green, gray or golden yellow. Our first three snake sightings were olives. The species has light sensors on its flat, paddlelike tail, a feature that tells the snake whether its rear end is sticking out. When you’re 6 feet long, eye spots on your tail are handy for hiding under a coral head.

For us sailors, though, eyes peering through polarized sunglasses are all we need to spot a sea snake snoozing on the water’s surface.

I know I’ll never convince people who fear snakes that they’re fun snorkeling companions. But even those with phobias might appreciate seeing, from the deck of a boat, a rare marine animal in its natural element.

Or not, if it’s a snake.

Banded Sea Snake on land, New Caledonia, 2006. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

All over but the recounting, trip had plenty of highlights

Resized marina fish

Fish in the marina , New Caledonia, 2006. ©2006 Susan Scott

Craig and I have been traveling together for 34 years now, and at the end of each journey, he asks me the same question: What was your favorite part of the trip?

After eight weeks of sailing 2,771 miles across the South Pacific, I had so many events, animals and places to choose from that days later I’m still coming up with answers to variations of the question.

The funniest moment of the trip, for instance, occurred in Suva. When you sail to a foreign port, customs, immigration and quarantine officials come aboard to clear the occupants and boat to enter the country. This can be easy and brief, or not.

After a mix-up in Tonga, where we angered the customs officer, in Fiji we were on high alert.

We soon lightened up, though, when the customs officer asked Craig his one and only question: “How long have you two been married?”

After a moment of silence, Craig said, “Um, I don’t know. Susan?”

The three officials in our cockpit burst out laughing.

“Man,” said the immigration officer as he stamped Craig’s passport, “you are in big trouble now.”

We laughed a lot in Suva, where nearly everyone greeted us with a warm “bula,” Fiji’s equivalent of “aloha.” For smiles, friendliness and just plain fun, Suva was my favorite city.

Sea snakes topped my list of must-see animals for this trip, and at least a dozen of those marine reptiles answered the call. One, a 4-foot-long blue and black banded snake, called a black-lipped krait, surfaced to breathe between Craig and me, snorkeling not 2 feet apart. It ignored us, but we will remember that little black face forever.

I felt even happier that I made this voyage when New Caledonia’s dugongs showed up. Dugongs are the Southern Hemisphere’s sea cows, gentle half-ton mammals that graze on sea grasses growing in shallow coastal waters of the Indian and Southwestern Pacific oceans. (Manatees, dugongs’ close relatives, live only in the Northern Hemisphere.)

In New Caledonia, where sea grass beds are extensive and marine sanctuaries widespread, dugong sightings are routine. We saw four, all brief glimpses of broad, brown, curved backs.

It was enough. Just knowing that these rare and endangered animals were feeding around the boat was a thrill like no other.

After Craig asked me to name my trip favorite, I put the question to him.

Craig likes sailing at night, especially during a new moon when the stars sparkle with intensity. He also likes full moons that turn the ocean silver.

During one of his night watches, he came below deck and touched my arm. “Sorry to wake you,” he said, “but you have to see this.”

The full moon was slowly turning a deep burnt orange as stars popped out like lights on timers. We had sailed into the splendor of a total lunar eclipse, Craig’s perfect night at sea.

We choose different highlights of our travels, but on one point we always agree: Oahu is the best place to live. No matter how good the journey, we’re happy to go home.

Especially by plane. Honu will stay in New Caledonia until our next adventure.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2014 Susan Scott


Friendly, sedate sea snakes can be lethal but rarely are

Published May 26, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Maitre Island, New Caledonia, 2006. ©2014 Susan Scott

MAITRE ISLAND, NEW CALEDONIA » One of my goals in sailing to New Caledonia was to see and admire the many sea snakes that grace this area’s reefs. One in particular answered the call. Honu wasn’t tied to a mooring off this marine preserve an hour before I had one of my best sea snake experiences ever.

New Caledonia is famous not just for its sea snakes, but also for its residents’ fondness of them, particularly one called “tricot raye.”

One of my books translates this French term as “striped sweater”; another says it means “striped T-shirt.” The name refers to the black bands that run around the blue-gray body, and indeed, the snake resembles the striped shirt of the French stereotype. All the snake needs to complete the look is a navy blue beret.

sea snake

Tricot Rayé – on the beach of Amadee Island, New Caledonia, 2006

Some snakes here do wear them. A shop in Noumea called Tricot Raye sells towels, bags, toys and, yes, striped T-shirts embroidered with adorable cartoon drawings of the snake on a bicycle, in scuba gear and taking part in a dozen other activities.

In English these snakes are called kraits, a krait being a snake that hunts on shallow coral reefs but rests, mates and lays eggs on land.

New Caledonia’s much-loved tricot raye is also called the yellow-lipped sea krait, but there’s more yellow to it than the lips. The whole face is yellow, a bead of brightness leading a graceful, winding body, 31 inches long in males, 50 inches in females.

Another species here, called the black-lipped krait, has a black face.

A notice on a popular beach in one of New Caledonia’s many marine preserves reads much like our Hawaiian monk seal and sea turtle signs, informing visitors that the snakes on the beach are resting and protected. Leave them alone, we are told, and enjoy their beauty.

The tricot raye is a docile creature, even when roughly handled. As a result, children here sometimes play with kraits, draping them around their necks like striped scarves.

This is a dangerous game. Sea snakes and kraits produce cobra-related venom so concentrated that a tiny amount can kill a human. Even so, only one sea snake death (that of a child) has ever been recorded in New Caledonia. If undisturbed, sea snakes mind their own business and ignore people.

Tiny Maitre Island hosts a hotel with a pier leading to an open-air lobby and restaurant built on a wooden deck over sand. Craig and I landed Honu’s dinghy at the pier, and right there, poking up through a space in the wooden dock, was the charming yellow face I had come all this way to see.

The tricot raye pulled itself onto the pier, crawled gracefully up five steps and wound its way into the lobby. When it reached a round piling at the center of the deck, the krait, ignored by workers and diners, checked into its own private room, sliding down a snake-size space to the sand below.

sea snake

Tricot Raye – Maitre Island, New Caledonia, 2014 ©2014 Susan Scott

It’s risky to travel to a country with a specific image in mind, because the reality is often disappointing. Not this time. The sea snakes here are even better than I dreamed.

When I get back to Noumea, I’m digging out my credit card and heading straight for that store called Tricot Raye.

Snake skipper

Susan in her Tricot Raye shirt, 2014.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2014 Susan Scott