Deadly Serious

“Yeah, we have to keep an anchor chain watch,” says the beanie-wearing man, stroking his stubbly chin. “They’ll just come right up the chain and into the boat if you’re not careful.”

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Having listened to a number of Australians at this point, there are several aspects of Australian humor that really stand out to me. First, there is the tendency for Aussies (especially men, especially fishermen) to declare every animal brought up in conversation as “real good eating, just throw ‘er on the barbie!” This is perplexing when one is researching endemic coastal dolphins, but sort of funny when you get used to it and can react with similar straight-faced absurdity: “yes, but a bit fishy-tasting. And oversalted.” And second, there is the complete solemn commitment to untruth that is used to hoodwink tourists and visitors (see “drop bears,” for example, or the persistence with which Natalie’s brother’s friend tried to convince us that he was called “Esky” because he was born in a cooler on a dusty road in the Outback). (We’re pretty sure he wasn’t actually. Like 99% sure. Maybe 98% sure.)

We’re pretty sure, as well, that sea snakes don’t climb anchor chains and enter boats. First of all, they’re almost all highly evolved to live their entire lives at sea. All but one group (the Laticauda, a more primitive group more closely related to their common ancestral land snakes in the Elapidae family, which includes coral snakes, cobras, mambas, taipans… basically all deadly poisonous), have reduced stomach scaling, making them quite vulnerable on land. They can’t coil or strike like land snakes, but can hold their breath underwater for several hours at a time, having evolved lungs that stretch nearly the whole length of their bodies, which they use for buoyancy control and gas exchange (which they can also do through the skin and scales on their backs!). They extrude salt from their bodies through glands behind their little snakey tongues, and use their vertically-flattened tails as paddles to swim. Climbing anything seems like it would present a problem for these guys. But even more unbelievable than sea snakes being physically able to climb into a boat is the idea that they might want to.

Sea snakes live interesting little lives. They’re among the most well-adapted reptiles to live in the sea, arguably more effective than sea turtles (who must all return to land to lay eggs rather than releasing large numbers of live wiggly young into the unsuspecting waters of the tropical regions in which they live). However, they’re primarily known for two somewhat contradictory characteristics: namely, that they are among the most deadly venomous creatures alive, and among the most friendly. It feels like a bit of chicken-and-egg paradox. Are they friendly to and curious about divers and snorkelers because they know they’re deadly? Or are they deadly because they’re otherwise suicidally approachable and have to have some way to stay alive?

Either way, I asked an Australian that I met on my walk yesterday, clearly an avid fisherman and also clearly familiar with boats, what he thought of the vivid yellow reptiles we see cutting the surface of the swell over the reefs.

“Pretty good with some tomato sauce,” he said.

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