, pub-6663105814926378, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0 SERPENTS OF THE SEA 4289


By this time, my scientific outreach activities had caught the attention of documentary filmmakers. Not long after submitting my PhD thesis, I went to Townsville to film a BBC/Discovery Channel co-production called Menacing Waters. The basic premise was to show that, in one way or another, almost everything in the reef was using chemicals to kill or defend. The focus of my segment was the research I had commenced on sea snake venom evolution.
Many myths abound about sea snakes but the most persistent are that, one, they can only envenomate if they bite the person on the webbing between the fingers; and two, that they are the most toxic snakes on earth. Both myths are, like most myths, wrong. Sea snakes can envenomate quite readily, as many have fangs comparable in length to those of Australian land snakes. And while highly toxic, they are not inordinately so when compared to Australian land snakes. The comparison to Australian land snakes is appropriate, as sea snakes are actually their descendants and remain their closest relatives. A tiger snake is more closely related to an olive sea snake than it is to a cobra. This close relationship is also evident in the composition of venoms. There are two land snakes, the inland taipan and the eastern brown snake, that are more toxic than any sea snake, but from then on the sea snakes share the rankings alongside snakes such as tiger snakes and death adders.
Sea snakes are supremely adapted to life in the sea. We did deep dives with them but had to pull up at 115 feet. The sea snakes continued far down into the gloom, diving effortlessly to below 330 feet. These animals have an amazing ability to lose almost all their excess carbon dioxide and nitrogen through the skin, while simultaneously taking up an additional 20 percent of oxygen. This loss of carbon dioxide and uptake of oxygen means that the snakes have dive times of over an hour when active, and can remain submerged for three or more hours when sleeping.
The loss of nitrogen means that it is physically impossible for them to get “bent:” “the bends” is the medical condition where there is such an excess of nitrogen in the blood from diving deep that if any animal comes up too fast, as the pressure decreases dramatically the excess gas is no longer held in solution in the blood but forms bubbles that increase steadily in size as the animal approaches the surface. Humans are particularly sensitive to getting bent, since we have not had any evolutionary selection pressure for this gas exchange. That is why the dive computer is god. So is the back-up dive computer. Truly a case of the more gods, the better. The wrong dive profile when going deep could be fatal if one of those air bubbles gets big and is located somewhere important like the brain. But sea snakes have no such concerns. However, in terms of the huge amount of energy expended while swimming, they are more like fish than snakes. They burn through energy like no other snake and therefore must eat almost daily. They only live four or five years due to this turbo-charged metabolism. Live fast and die young.
I was up very early to watch the indigo blue of the pre-dawn sky being pierced by an array of orange flares. The tropical seas are my favorite places to do field research; I never tire of watching the myriad fish on the surface or down below. Fish of all colors dance the night away in the waters, some doing a tango, some a rumba, and some are obviously the two-left-footed fools of the fish world. Two one-and-a-half-foot-long mullets glided on the surface, their white lips against their blue-green bodies making them look like sharks all tarted up for a night out—perhaps a quick bite and then a show?
We were filming the Yongala, a deep wreck teeming with life. The upper deck was shimmering with neon-bright colored fish doing the flamenco for each other. Lurking in the shadows were the mottled muggers like barramundi and groupers. Going deeper, the predators were larger but fewer, until only a few behemoths were atop the delicately balanced food chain. But the one animal that no one messed with was also the stealthiest. The long and solidly built olive sea snake is six feet of muscle terminating with a broad head that contains stout fangs good for hole-punching through fish scales to deliver a rather large amount of extremely toxic venom. The venom is particularly devastating to fish, yet potent enough to hammer a human.
While olive sea snake bodies are a flat grey with a tinge of green—hence the common name—the heads themselves are a dusky orange. Their eyes are surprisingly small, indicating that in the darkness of the deep they rely on other senses for their hunting ability. I had fun with another fascinating adaptation of theirs: the ability to sense light with their tail. This strange feature allows them to sense whether their tail is sticking out from whatever piece of plate coral they have sought refuge underneath while sleeping. This is important because even though they are highly venomous, they are still vulnerable to predation from large fish such as Maori wrasse or tiger sharks.
During one dive, one of the other team members gestured for me to look down. I glanced down and, much to my surprise, saw I was standing on a five-foot-long olive sea snake that was looking at me with nothing but benevolence in its eyes. I finned upwards to release it and this snake promptly attached itself to our group. It followed us through the rest of the dive like a very devoted but scaly puppy. It would swim right up to the face mask of a diver, stick its tongue out a few times to try and determine what this strange creature in its environment was, and then placidly swim off to inspect another diver. It was truly an auspicious beginning to the trip.
The fish in these areas have been subjected to a very strong selection pressure, particularly highly specialized fish like sand eels, which are ruthlessly hunted by the asymmetrical elegant sea snake. With a long, narrow head, a very long, thin neck that accounts for half of the up to six-foot-long body, and a very muscular last half, they are fettuccine with fangs. The selection pressure has been so extreme that sand eels in areas where sea snakes occur are much more resistant to sea snake venom than sand eels where sea snakes do not occur. They still get predated on, but it would have been carnage when the sea snakes originally appeared in the oceans after the first live-bearing Australian elapid snake decided to have a “sea change.” Anything that makes a hole and lives in it like a hobbit is specifically targeted by sea snakes. Out on the sand flats I was entranced, watching the elegant sea snakes glide effortlessly along. The irregular dark blotches all along their tawny bodies provided the perfect camouflage. When immobile, they disappeared against the dappled sunlit sandy bottom.
I collected snakes by putting my hand into a mesh dive bag, grabbing a snake mid-body with the mesh, then using the other hand to turn the bag inside out. This resulted in the snake being on the inside and me on the out. As sea snakes breathe air, I could not hold on to them for the entire dive, since they might drown. Even though sea snakes can hold their breath for long periods of time, I had no way of knowing how long it had been since their last breath, plus any struggling during capture would use up vital oxygen that much faster. Thus, I had to assume that the snake was going to need air shortly. However, it is unsafe diving practice to keep going up and down from the surface, called “yo-yoing.” I settled on a very simple way of accomplishing what needed to be done: I would partially fill a balloon with air, place it inside the bag and send the snake up to the surface that way. As the balloon traveled up, the air would expand greatly, so I was careful not to overfill it so that it did not pop on the way up. On the surface, one of the crew members would zip over in a small boat and collect the bag, to put it in a shaded water tank back on the main boat.
Most of the dives were no deeper than 65 feet, but the last one of this particular day was to 125 feet, a depth where nitrogen narcosis can start occurring, especially if a diver is tired. Oxygen makes up a small percentage of the air we breathe, with nitrogen constituting most of the remaining 80 percent. Jacques Cousteau spoke of nitrogen narcosis lovingly as “rapture of the deep:” the intoxicating effects nitrogen produces when air is breathed under pressure at depth. The deeper one goes, the higher one gets. Nitrogen dissolves into the fatty material that covers nerve cells and subsequently interferes with the transmission of nerve impulses. On the deep dive, I felt the effects of the nitrogen: my reflexes became slower and my thinking not as clear. This was demonstrated nicely when I neglected to close a bag while I was blowing up the balloon to float it up to the surface: the snake escaped halfway there.
By this time, the weather had shifted dramatically and there was a major storm developing that was predicted to head straight in and crash into the heart of Townsville. It had already been given the name of Cyclone Tessi—which made it sound like an emotionally unstable super ex-girlfriend was out to seek revenge. It had total bunny-boiler written all over it. So we quickly made for shore, parking the boat in the Horseshoe Bay marina on Magnetic Island and grabbing the last ferry back to the mainland. The cyclone struck six hours later. We were with the director of the shoot, Russell Kelly, in his apartment, sheltered from the winds by the massive Castle Hill, and saw the eye come over Townsville. Strange moonlight bathed the buildings for a short period of time. The palm trees went from being bent ninety degrees to standing still and straight. Then, as the other side of the eye approached, the winds slammed in again and the trees bent once more, this time in the opposite direction.
Daylight brought scenes of devastation, including trees impaling houses, boats on land and cars in the ocean. The only place with power was the local pub, which quite naturally had the latest and greatest in man-toys: twin automatic-switch large diesel generators. Life continued for the pub without disturbance but with a significant monopoly on the food and drink business. Prices were normal and the food and cold beer plentiful. Construction-worker mates of the proprietor had turned the fresh hole in the roof into a glass-sealed skylight by 10 a.m. Each of the four workers walked away with a friendly handshake and a slab of beer. As torrential rain and strong winds were still lashing the city, I was wearing my blue-lens swim goggles to protect my eyes, looking to the locals not like a scientist taking child-like delight in cataloging a natural disaster but more like just another stoned, shaven-headed male tourist from Sweden. Weird but harmless. Fine, I could live with that.
Luckily, we had completed the ocean filming sequences—the water quality would be blown out for over a week after a storm like that—so we headed up to Innisfail to film snakes kept by a local snake keeper. We had been there less than two minutes when he was bitten. He had two albino death adders in a cage with a piece of cardboard as a low-tech divider. Both snakes were on the same side, one of them hidden under some newspaper. As he was competently hooking the one he could see, the other struck as the shadow of his hand passed over, connecting with both fangs and leaving twin holes in the newspaper. The cameraman hadn’t even put his gear together, so everyone was entirely unprepared for this.
I rapidly pulled out my first aid kit and wrapped his arm in a pressure-immobilization bandage to slow the spread of venom. We then bundled him into a car and raced for the hospital, which was no less than twenty minutes along the steep, twisting roads. I had my ampoules and needles ready in case he went into allergic shock. While that did not manifest, a drooping of his eyelids and deepening of his voice indicated that the neurotoxins were starting to exert their chilling effects. An Irish female locum doctor staffed the small local hospital that day. The stereotype of Irish women being willowy and beautiful held true: her long, tangled, reddish-brown hair offset emerald eyes. She wasn’t camera-shy in the least as cameraman Richard Fitzpatrick gazed up at the scene, his massive lens like the Eye of Mordor.
By now the snake keeper was displaying all the symptoms of severe neurotoxicity, particularly in the left eye, which was now immobile and pointed sharply outwards. Australian antivenoms are known to be the best in the world, but even so, he was premedicated against shock with a shot of adrenalin to the stomach, as is protocol, with each injection feeling like yet another giant bee sting. Administration in this case turned out to be prescient since he immediately reacted violently to the antivenom and went into allergic shock in reaction to it. His skin erupted in large hives. The doctor took pity on him and offered to scratch wherever it itched the most. With the least paralyzed of his arms, he clumsily gestured towards his crotch. She looked straight into the lens and said, in an even tone, “I’m not touching that.” She then left the stage.
Once the snake keeper was stabilized, the medical team made the decision that he needed to be cared for at the Cairns Base Hospital since he was having severe breathing difficulties. There was one complication, though. Another cyclone had formed and was potentially going to cross the coast near Cairns. Acting quickly, we loaded him on to the helicopter, which took off with great urgency. They landed four hours before the effects of the next cyclone were felt.
Not long after, I was off to Broome to meet up with an Animal Planet film crew for a documentary on sea snakes at Ashmore Reef. I was guest-starring on the show of a herpetologist I shall refer to as the Red Dwarf. His program was an authentic one in that he did not stage shots, unlike most on this station, with its plummeting standards. Instead, all the captures were filmed as they occurred. This strict policy of no-reshoots unfortunately meant that the programs were plagued with bad camera angles and poor light. However, unlike most of the other hosts, Red Dwarf had not appeared from a white-trash alternative universe via a wormhole.
Ashmore Reef is located so far offshore that it is much closer to West Timor than to continental Australia. Luggage check-in at an airport is typically a mundane affair; however, this time the attendant at the airport’s Ansett counter looked astonished at the mountain of gear of all sizes and shapes that I presented. There were nets, snake hooks, a very large first aid box (a necessity whenever I go out in the field), a dive bag, a cool-box that was unusually heavy (it contained my dive weights as well as cold packs) and two rucksacks. All up, six pieces with a total weight of nearly 220 pounds. The staff member checking me in gave a shudder at the mention of snakes, and promptly lost interest in my excess luggage, expeditiously and adeptly checking it all in, wishing me the best and obviously hoping I would hurry along. To my eternal gratitude, no mention was made of excess baggage fees. I thanked him profusely and scampered away before he could recover from the nasty visions of snakes and reconsider the matter at hand.
Upon arrival at Broome Airport I made straight for the boat. The vessel we would be taking was the one-hundred-foot-long Kimberley Quest, a sumptuously fitted-out boat that promised to be very accommodating for the thirty-six hour voyage to Ashmore and Hibernia reefs. Ashmore Reef National Nature Reserve (now known as Ashmore Reef Commonwealth Marine Reserve) is located in the Timor Sea, approximately 520 miles west of Darwin and 380 miles north of Broome, or, in more practical terms, about 93 miles south of West Timor. The reserve consists of three small islands, a large reef shelf, and 225 square miles of seabed. This remote reef system is a critical stepping stone in the transportation of nutrients from the rich reefs of Asia to the reef systems located along the Western Australian coast. Ashmore enjoys the highest level of protection afforded by the Department of Environment. It is a special place, with the greatest concentration of sea snakes found anywhere on earth. In addition, many of the local species are only found there. The research undertaken during the filming would provide further data about the relative abundance and uniqueness of the sea snakes we encountered.
The water rapidly changed from navy blue to turquoise as we approached. The water visibility was around one hundred feet and the water was at a delicious eighty-three degrees. We geared up for our first dive of the trip; this dive was not for research, but rather an assessment dive, designed to provide time for the divemaster to assess each person’s relative dive competence, while also allowing each diver to do last-minute gear checks. This was particularly important, as Red Dwarf had only recently been certified, with his entire dive experience being within a single quarry in the United Kingdom.
The shallow lagoon was teeming with life. Large schools of stingrays glided gently along while birds soared and dived in the skies. In addition to hosting an unprecedented number and diversity of sea snakes, Ashmore is also home to important rookeries for several species of birds. The snake density was truly on a legendary scale. We caught twenty snakes in five minutes. All belonged to three species that I had never seen before: the dusky sea snake, Dubois’ sea snake, and the leaf-scaled sea snake. All three species are smaller relatives of the olive sea snake. The dusky sea snake looks essentially like a small brownish olive sea snake, although not as heavily built or laterally compressed. The Dubois’ sea snake was much the same in build, but black with scales outlined in white, giving it a reticulated appearance. The third species was something radically different. The scales were pointed and heavily overlapping, looking like glued-on leaves. The leaf-scaled sea snake was truly a gorgeous animal.
During the surface interval after the dive, I went for a long snorkel to assess the area and came across a breeding pair of turtlehead sea snakes. This curious species is actually moving away from being venomous. The venom glands have shrunk, as have the fangs since these snakes feed only on fish eggs, which they scrape off the rocks using specialized scales on their chins. The males are smaller and can be almost jet black, while the females are larger, as is the case with most sea snake species, and much lighter in pattern. The male also has a thick, pointed scale on its upper jaw, which gives the effect of a turtle’s beak, thus giving these snakes their common name. The male, as I was lucky enough to observe, gently pokes the female in the neck region with this specialized scale during the courtship ritual.
Our plan was to spend an entire day on the outer face of the reef looking for a much larger species of snake—the Stokes’ sea snake. This species was the sole reason we had been wearing 5mm wetsuits, despite diving in the tropics. This snake has fangs long enough to puncture a thinner wetsuit and a large specimen could possibly envenomate even through wetsuits of this thickness. Truly a formidable adversary.
The first dive of the day was very deep, with the maximum depth predicted to be at least 130 feet. Thus there were two competing, but interlinked, concerns: rapid depletion of our air reserves and nitrogen narcosis. The dive started uneventfully enough, although Red Dwarf was very slow to equalize his ears, so I used up ten precious minutes of bottom time and a fair bit of air waiting for him. Once the team was assembled at the bottom, we proceeded to methodically search the area. A large olive sea snake was captured soon after we set off. However, there was no sign of any Stokes’ sea snakes. Further searching of the area yielded no more specimens. As we approached a large bommie—a huge boulder-like coral structure around which marine life is often plentiful—my pre-set air-level alarm went off, indicating that I was getting low on air.
I signaled to the divemaster that I was low on air and proceeded to make my way up to fifty feet with another team member in order to do my safety decompression stop before leaving the water. A minute or two into this stop I noticed with alarm a large quantity of bubbles coming up from below. Seconds later, Red Dwarf and the divemaster came rushing past me like a snake in a mesh bag with a balloon. Red Dwarf had his arms and legs wrapped around the divemaster, preventing him from dumping air from the BCD (buoyancy control device) and thus stopping this dangerous uncontrolled ascent. There was nothing I could do but continue my safety stop and watch from below as the crew boat sped over from the Kimberley Quest, picked up Red Dwarf’s limp body and then sped off. I watched the divemaster prudently make his way back to eighty feet to try to recompress the nitrogen gas in his blood in an attempt to avoid getting bent.
Upon surfacing, we signaled to the crew to come and pick us up. As we headed back to the Kimberley Quest, we pestered the boatman as to what had transpired. It was quite simple: Red Dwarf had run out of air. He had been doing pieces to camera while wearing a full-face mask linked up to an audio recorder that was synchronized to the camera. While doing this narration he had used up his air much more quickly than would normally be the case, which would also have increased the effects of nitrogen narcosis. The divemaster had to remove Red Dwarf’s mask in order to let him buddy-breathe from his air supply. However, having had a near drowning incident a few years earlier, Red Dwarf was very anxious about water, so when the mask was removed and water hit his face he panicked.
Back on the boat, Red Dwarf was receiving emergency oxygen to prevent decompression sickness. Oxygen speeds the removal of excess nitrogen from the body. He was looking a bit pale but other than that was fine. The expedition doctor decided that Red Dwarf would stay on oxygen for a full hour and that the divemaster would, as a precautionary measure, also receive oxygen. Meanwhile, the assistant divemaster checked out Red Dwarf’s equipment and found all to be working perfectly. Thus, equipment failure was ruled out as a cause. This left as the only possible remaining scenario Red Dwarf’s getting disoriented due to nitrogen narcosis at that depth, with the added fact of his using excessive air for his talking to camera. The loss of mental sharpness meant that he had not noticed the rapid depletion of air in his tank. The incident occurred through no fault of the divemaster. These things are preventable and shouldn’t happen.
Strict dive policy dictates that adequate supplies of pure oxygen for emergency use must be present prior to the commencement of any dive. However, all the emergency oxygen supplies had now been used. The expedition was therefore over. No arguments. I was quite disappointed about not achieving the goal of catching a Stokes’ sea snake for the research, but remained philosophical about it. I would have to keep searching and find one another day. The documentary company had enough material to make an entertaining film, so all was well at the end of the day.
A few months later I was off to Niue to film sea kraits. Unlike sea snakes, sea kraits are egg-layers, having evolved from the egg-laying kraits in Asia. To get to Niue I had to fly first to Auckland, New Zealand, to meet up with the film crew. On arriving I was instantly struck by the realization that no matter how many layers of quick-dry clothing are worn, a person will still shiver in the cold winter. I had totally forgotten to take into account just how cold Auckland is at that time of year. After a five-hour layover we flew to the much warmer Tonga. The landing at Fua‘amotu Airport was followed by a scenic-route tour of the island, taking the long way to Nuku‘alofa, where we would stay the night. The tour was informative—or at least it would have been if it weren’t being conducted in the middle of a moonless light. The guide even said, “Over here is the residence of our King T?ufa‘?hau Tupou, we love him so. If it was light you could see the many hedges on the property.” Obviously, this was another island-economy job for a cousin of someone in the government. An early rise the next day was followed by a more direct drive to the airport. As my gear was being loaded on to the security belt, I said to the female worker, “Let me get that, it’s heavy.” She gave me an amused look and then effortlessly bicep-curled a very heavy rucksack. Her flexed bicep was bigger than my calf muscle. Okay, righto. As you were.
As we boarded the small plane, I saw the crew forcing more bags into the already crammed hold. For small, old planes such as this one, this could lead to loss of control from overloading. As we approached Niue, we were buffeted by the very strong winds characteristic of the island. From the air, I could see that the wind had generated huge, unsurfable breakers on the windward side. But it was the unsteady twisting in the wind by the overloaded plane that really caught my attention. Somehow, we landed unscathed.
Niue is a tiny limestone atoll north-east of Tonga and south of Samoa. This speck in the ocean has true blue-water dive visibility, but over corals, not open ocean. Dive visibility of over 245 feet is not uncommon. The species of sea krait we were after was known locally as the katuali. It is not the longest of sea kraits, nor is it the shortest, but it is one of the most robust due to the thick layers of muscle used to propel it through the strong surf and currents. These same conditions made diving very challenging for us. The extremely strong surge that followed each massive wave would suck us back twenty-five to thirty-five feet and then sling us forward again, which made for many collisions with the coral and rocks.
This was particularly the case during the Bubble Cave dive. The cameraman Pete West and I entered an opening in the rocks at about sixty-five feet and swam along it for about one hundred feet before rising up into an air-filled cave under the island. During the initial swim, we were smashed repeatedly against the limestone walls, accumulating numerous bruises and one cracked lens. Once above water in the cave, we took our scuba gear off. The water level would rise and fall ten feet with each fresh surge, causing the air to condense into a heavy mist in front of us from the pressure of the rising water, and our ears to snap-and-pop equalize as each subsequent rapid drop in the water level caused the pressure to precipitously fall. The only access to this cave was through the tunnel, but it was obviously well known to katuali. Scores lined the cave floor and their banded bodies hung off the walls like the world’s deadliest Christmas socks for Santa. Large females crawled high up into areas well above the level of even the highest of tides. It was there that we found them laying their eggs. We filmed them and then sat back entranced, watching this precious sight. Soon it was time to return to the outside world. The trip back was as much of a washing machine spin-cycle smash-up as the way in had been.
We took a day’s break from scuba diving to lick our wounds and let our battered bodies heal up, occupying our time filming land scenery and life in the shallows. The island hosted giant coconut crabs, creatures that must have been the inspiration for the “face-huggers” in the Alien movie franchise—giant, slow-moving crustaceans that were as tasty as they were bizarre-looking. Katuali were abundant all around the island, both in and out of the water. Giant moray eels were also very much in evidence in the surrounding sea. One especially massive specimen had been nicknamed Godzilla by the locals. It hung out at the pier and terrorized all who came into the water. It had never attacked anyone, but its size alone was fear-inspiring. Solid orange, it was almost ten feet long, with a head that was almost eleven inches across propelled by an even more massive body. The first time I saw it, I thought it was a lemon shark cruising the sand flats. Then I realized it was actually the biggest moray eel I had ever seen.
When Niue was hit by a cyclone the previous year, the sole pier sustained significant damage. The New Zealand navy came in to repair it and the entire repair team bailed out of the water at the first appearance by Godzilla. The locals reassured them that it was a gentle giant. Sure, it could easily kill a person, but in its infinite grace, it chose not to. The team returned to the water with trepidation and anxiety. But sure enough, Godzilla swam by harmlessly several times each day and inspected their work efforts. The workers were sufficiently motivated to complete the repairs with uncharacteristic alacrity, efficiency, and speed!
Overnight, torrential tropical rain inundated the island but it was clear and sunny the following morning. However, the huge amount of fresh water running off the island created an emulsion layer, with the less dense fresh water suspended on top of the dense salt water. The fresh-water zone was clear but blurry as it bounced and ran along the salt zone. Once we descended below the fresh and into the salt, the visibility returned to the crispness characteristic of Niue. We spent the day filming the curtains of katuali as they swam to the surface to breathe and then back down to hunt in the channels formed in the coral by the powerful waves and current. They were hunting eels in particular, and seemed to have a special affinity for the blue-colored ones. So much so that they zeroed in on all things blue—including my flippers, which just happened to be electric blue. They would follow me like lovesick puppies giving the occasional test nibble with their deadly fangs.
Over the course of the day, in my excitement at diving with these animals and with the unusually clear water not giving me a murky depth indicator, I was negligent in staying within proper dive profile standards. I was particularly guilty of yo-yoing. A proper dive profile commences with the diver first going down to the deepest depth, and then coming up to shallower levels over the course of the dive. I was swimming alongside sea kraits, lost in my happiness, and yo-yoing continually—going down to eighty feet and then back up to the surface, keeping pace with the snakes. This sharp, frequent change in pressure is particularly dangerous and can easily result in a diver getting the bends. Which, of course, I did.
The next two days were wiped out by another tropical storm, which was convenient since I was in no shape to dive. My nerves had a weird sort of electrical crackle. Things were not right in the neuroscape of my body. I crunched painkillers and hoped it wasn’t too bad. I was kind of in a shit-out-of-luck situation otherwise. The film crew had not been attentive in their planning, and there was no hyperbaric chamber on the small island, which is understandable, but also no pure oxygen, which was unacceptable. Flying me back to Auckland was not an option since going up in a poorly pressurized small plane would cause the air bubbles in my blood to expand even more. So there was nothing for me to do but lie in bed stoned on painkillers, listen to music like The Prodigy’s Breathe, and try not to die.
Once the weather cleared and it was safe for me to dive again, I had a truly magical experience on the last day of filming. We were hanging off the side of the boat, resting after another physically draining dive, battling the strong surge. I had already taken off all my scuba equipment but still had my flippers on. Looking below me, I noticed that the bottom was suddenly a lot closer. But it wasn’t the bottom at all. It was a humpback whale swimming directly beneath me. What instantly struck me was not just how long it was but how massive it was. The pectoral fins also appeared to be almost as long as the body itself. I grabbed a mask from the boat and took off after it. Even though it was swimming at a very leisurely pace, I struggled to keep up. As I looked upon it with wonder and a feeling of glee, I noticed that its abdomen region was bulging. It was a pregnant female. I have never felt such an ethereal, magical feeling. All my senses were abuzz with wonder and delight. We were in fairly shallow water and as we drifted over the deeper water, I took a deep breath and did a free dive to about sixty-five feet to stay with it as it started descending. But then it gave a mighty kick with its broad tail to power itself into the deep. The turbulence in the water sent me into a reverse somersault, with my neck cracking from the abrupt motion. For a second or two I blacked out. I came back to consciousness rather disorientated. Luckily, the buoyancy imparted by my wetsuit was pulling my limp body upwards. I made a few uncoordinated kicks to speed my rise and broke through the surface with a mighty gasp of air to fill my burning lungs.
Months later I saw the final version of the film, after it had already gone to air, and had decidedly mixed emotions. While the scenery came across as stunning and the dive scenes were compelling, there were sequences that I had not been involved with that were complete fabrications. These were the scenes regarding how katuali feature in the local culture. Venomous animals typically have a profound impact in shaping a culture and mythology—for example, cobras in the Hindu religion. However, in Niue katuali were uncharacteristically not a part of the indigenous beliefs. So the director had the locals on camera completely making things up as they went along. One woman went so far off the reservation that she ended up with these weird stories about katuali that were even more fetish-laden than the Greek mythology story of Dana?, who was impregnated by the god Zeus when he came to her in the guise of a “golden shower.”
The “local flavor” footage was even more obviously contrived in a sequence involving a fisherman who they filmed banging on his small outrigger canoe with the oar to appease the snake god and thus have a bountiful catch—ignoring, of course, the small detail that violently pounding on the canoe would scare away the fish, not attract them. But then, even more absurdly, the sequence continued with him putting bait down with a hand line, and then cut to him triumphantly returning to shore with a six-foot-long marlin about as long as his small canoe. In reality, it was a dead one purchased from the island fish market that very morning. This was my first real experience of the duplicitous editing of such programs. Even though I played my part straight, the assembly and edit were out of my control.
A couple of months later, I headed out with a film crew from National Geographic for a new series called Snake Wranglers. Our quest was to finally catch a Stokes’ sea snake. This time I was searching at the tip of Cape York in Queensland, in a mining town called Weipa. From the air, Weipa was an interesting dichotomy: a combination of lush green bushland and red open sores from the mining operations. Stepping onto the tarmac and taking the first breath was an unusual experience. It was extremely humid, yet the air was saturated with a fine red dust. The result was essentially airborne red mud that instantly coated the lungs. As we waited for our luggage to be unloaded, I began to wonder what industrial hell I had arrived in, and what effect it would have on the sea snake catching. Would we catch anything at all? And if we did, what would they be like? Would a one-hundred-foot chemically mutated sea snake storm out of the water, demanding to talk to whoever was in charge about some two-headed babies it had back in its lair?
We were shown around the mining town by two thoroughly affable Aboriginal Comalco employees named Warren and Rocky, who were quite obviously completely thrilled with the idea of taking a couple of days off from their real jobs to squire us around as we looked for land snakes, when we were not out on the water catching sea snakes. Joining us also was a local snake-mad teenager named Lauren Collings. They showed us the different aspects of the mining operation, including the trucks used to move the bauxite ore. I’m not sure if calling these things trucks is the proper word, considering that each tire was about ten feet in diameter and this mechanical beast had about ten of them—the entire thing was about fifty feet long. At Lorim Point was the ship-loading pier, with all sorts of mechanical contraptions on it. At night it was lit up like a Christmas tree and was stunning to behold. All in all, a very impressive operation. Talking to my guides, I learned more about the mining operation and that it was actually surprisingly sustainable. They scrapped only the first three feet of soil and then replanted the area when done. As trees grow so fast in the lush tropical environment, areas mined as recently as fifteen years ago were almost indistinguishable from virgin terrain.
An unseasonal couple of days of monsoonal rains interfered with our sea snake catching, but did bring out a few million amphibians. While some were indigenous species of frogs, the vast majority were that scourge of the environment, the cane toad. The effect of the cane toads on the local wildlife was quite evident. No quolls were spotted during our entire trip, despite historically being a very common species in the area. Several nights of road spotting revealed not a single snake, only cane toad after cane toad. Locals confirmed that this was not an anomaly and that the quolls were very scarce, as were many previously common species of reptiles. Depressing.
With thunder booming in the distance like a maniac drummer in a heavy metal band, and lightning crackling across the sky like spider webs, we embarked from the boat ramp with a local fishing guide named Dave Donald. Dave had the leathery face of a career outdoorsman, with deep character lines earned through decades of honest dedication to a craft. The dark tan of his face was offset by light blue eyes and steel-grey hair. Like me, he was deaf in his right ear but in his case it was from the steady deep buzzing drone of the outboard motor over the many years he had been a fishing guide in the far north of Queensland. Dave had the rough, salty humor of the rural outdoorsman—another reason we became fast friends.
To illuminate the snakes in the water, we used car-battery-powered spotlights. Box jellyfish showed up as ghost-like comet shapes in the water. The abundant box jellyfish ensure that at the very time of year you would most like to go for a swim, you can’t. Of course, in Weipa a swim is never recommended due to the year-round presence of large saltwater crocodiles and bull sharks. In addition to plentiful crocodiles on the banks, lounging like logs with teeth, there were numerous deadly dark shadows in the water as big sharks cruised by the boat to check us out. Each year in the early summer in the north, the box jellies come inshore to enter the mouths of rivers and creeks to spawn. Box jellyfish are the Olympic athletes of the jellyfish world, able to swim even against a current and travel up to three miles a day. They have four very primitive eyes in the multi-chambered bell. The sixty ribbon-like tentacles are arranged into four bunches, with each tentacle being over ten feet long. These invisible Furies possess one of the most devastating venoms of all. The venom from a stinging tentacle causes a pain so intense that people sometimes die just from the shock. The pain from the frying of the tissue is agonizing, feeling like long trails of acid being poured along the skin. If a person survives that, the direct effects of venom on the cardiac system can also kill. Human survivors are left with deep scarring, as if violently whipped with a thin metal rod. The clear, soccer-ball-sized bell lacks stinging cells, so I took them from the water by gently grasping the high-tech plasticine-like material and lifting them up. The tentacles were then clipped off for venom extraction later in the lab.
Each night, we spotted around eighty sea snakes in the three-hour activity period that commenced right after dusk. It was like a switch was flicked. One minute there were no snakes in sight; the next, there was one resting on the surface every few hundred feet. We were successful in netting about half of these. The method of catching was simple in theory—illuminate a snake with the spotlight, bring the boat to it and scoop it out of the water using aluminum prawn nets. Simple, that is, except that no one had informed the snakes that they were to placidly wait on the surface to be collected. Instead, they dived rather quickly after being lit up. Our greatest success was with individuals who were curled up on the surface, tied up in a nice little knot while swallowing their latest fish victim.
The first night out, we got on to the biggest elegant sea snake I have ever seen. At eight feet, it was also the longest sea snake of any kind I have ever seen. Half an hour later, a shorter but more massive object appeared in the lights ahead of the boat. It was a Stokes’ sea snake, and a big one at that. It was around the six foot mark and its mottled body was thicker than my upper arm. It was diving as we approached, so I leaned way overboard, thrust my hand deep into the water and just managed to get a hold on the tip of its tail. I yanked it onboard—I finally had one! The head was bigger than my clenched fist and the fangs were less than half an inch long. The venom yield was tremendous. The 1 cc of venom contained over 150 milligrams of venom protein—far more than was needed to do a full battery of assays on it. I felt deeply satisfied, not only because it was the last piece in the puzzle for the sea snake study, but also because it was such an iconic animal. This was the pinnacle of sea snake evolution and it was a privilege to behold.
The next night out we caught a very strange snake. Instead of the smooth scales that make a sea snake so aqua-dynamic, allowing it to slip its way through the water, this was covered with extremely rough scales. It was quite unlike any of the thousands of other sea snakes I had seen previously. I asked Dave about the bottom conditions in the area, and he described it as packed full of a very unusual type of sharp rock that cut fishing lines like a razor. I theorized that the snake was evolutionarily selected to have such rough scales as a means of protection against the rocks that would slice up a sea snake into serpentine sashimi. I was extremely excited by now, since I knew with great certainty that we had discovered an entirely new species.
On the last night we caught something quite unusual again: a very large horned sea snake. Yet again, this snake was unlike anything I had seen before. Instead of feeling like a very firm water balloon, it felt like concrete. We were unloading the bins onto the dock at the end of the three-hour activity period when some young kids came down to check out the snakes. I was pointing out and naming the different kinds. I pointed at the horned sea snake and said, “We don’t know if its venom is as different as its body, but I reckon it would kill you.” The movement of my finger attracted the snake’s attention, and even though my finger was almost two feet above the three-foot-long, thick, muscular sea snake, it had a go at biting me—and succeeded. Many land snakes would struggle to strike straight up, let alone any other sea snake I knew. But this one did it effortlessly.
I watched in slow motion both sides of the snake’s head go concave as it emptied its venom into the meaty part of my left thumb. Luckily sea snakes’ venom is different enough from their land snake relatives’ that my allergy was not triggered. However, the venom effects came on fast and furious.
Sea snake venom is notorious for being very quick-acting, consistent with the snakes’ need to rapidly immobilize fast-moving fish. If the fish can dart off, they’re gone. Sea snakes are not fast enough to pursue for any great distance, so they are unable to track their prey the way a rattlesnake would follow a mouse across the desert. Despite the rapid administration of pressure-immobilization first aid, by the time we got to the small Weipa Hospital my face was grey and my lips were green. The world was getting very distant and my lower back was hurting something fierce: I was feeling the effects of severe neurotoxicity, and my muscles were being severely damaged by myotoxins, which made my urine look like Coca-Cola. By then, I was also in extreme pain. We had brought a vial of our own sea snake antivenom, as usual, and the local hospital also had a vial. Within ten minutes of arrival, the first vial was administered, and the second followed an hour later. This reversed the nerve effects and halted the muscle effects.
But the damage was already done. Back home, for a week I could barely walk and even short steps defeated me. If I put a backpack on, my back would sway under the load. For two weeks my body felt like I had competed in an ironman triathlon without training. It took me a month to be pain-free. I waited another two weeks and then resumed swim training. On my very first lap, when doing butterfly stroke, both of the rotator cuffs in my shoulders disintegrated—they were torn halfway through. For six months, I could not lift either arm above my shoulder. If I moved my shoulders in certain ways, it sounded like gravel grating against more gravel. My shoulders were now permanently wrecked and my swim competition career had come to an abrupt halt. As part of the recovery process, I spent some time on beaches. The motion used in sea kayaking did not aggravate my shoulders, so I would kayak for a few hours each morning, and then lie in a hammock chatting the day away with friends and strangers and eating lots of fresh fruit and seafood.
It was then time for me to pack up and move to Singapore to take up a research position at the National University of Singapore, as the opportunities in Australia at that stage were few and far between.











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