Sea Snakes – Misunderstood Species?
There are very few inhabitants of the ocean that garner as much of a reaction as a sea snake. As per their land cousins, most people have an instant reaction of fright when spotting a sea snake. For some reason, snakes inspire a primal fear in people who encounter them. This fear is carried over from the land to sea snakes. However, there is a large difference in behavior between sea snakes and land snakes that most people don’t realize. Indonesia is home to many species of sea snakes and we love encountering them while in the water. We are happy to explain more about the behavior of these fascinating reptiles in order to dispel certain myths and fears that visitors may have.
Sea Snakes in Indonesia
With 69 species recognized, sea snakes are a diverse group of reptiles. They are solely found in the Pacific and Indian oceans and don’t appear in the Atlantic or Caribbean. There are two distinct types of sea snakes: true sea snakes and kraits. True sea snakes live 100% of their lives in the ocean and don’t crawl on to land as they have lost their ability to move out of the water. Kraits on the other hand will often go to land, especially when it comes time to lay eggs. Although they both boast a paddle shaped tail specifically evolved for water, the krait family is more closely related to land snakes than their ocean going cousins.
Although many species can be found in Indonesia, we typically only ever encounter 4 different species. This is mainly due to the habitats that most snakes live in. The species that we mainly encounter are olive sea snakes, banded sea kraits, yellow lipped sea kraits, and blue lipped sea kraits. All of these snakes can be found in coral environments and are therefore spotted by divers and snorkelers.
Are You Afraid of Sea Snakes?
For many folks, they carry their fear of land snakes to sea snakes. Snakes in general are often misunderstood. All snakes prefer to flee from contact with humans as a first choice. Most snakes bites are a case of defensive behavior as a last line of defense. However, there are certain species of land snakes that are more aggressive than others. Luckily enough this doesn’t seem to be the case with sea snakes. Sea snakes are mainly very docile, inquisitive, and all in all very chilled! It’s not known why their temperament is so much more relaxed toward humans than their land based cousins. The only known bites from sea snakes have come from defensive bites when snakes are accidentally caught in a fishing net.
Sea kraits are especially curious and will actively approach divers. Although this may at first produce an adverse reaction for a diver, the snakes are not being aggressive. We often visit two different islands in the Banda Sea with large sea krait populations. When we dive at these sites it’s common for two or three snakes to actually swim right up to a diver to check them out face to face! The key is to remain calm and don’t panic, the snakes are only inspecting the new visitors to their territory. These are great opportunities to both get a close look at these curious reptiles or take a photo.
Sea Kraits and the Olive Sea Snake
The species of snake that we most often encounter are the banded sea krait (Laticauda semifasciata), the blue lipped sea krait (Laticauda laticaudata), the yellow lipped sea krait (Laticauda colubrina), and the olive sea snake (Aipysurus laevis). The first 3 are all kraits and therefore not true sea snakes. All 3 species will go to land to lay eggs and often crawl onto boats or rocks to sleep. The kraits are the most common sightings that we have, mainly on coral reefs. All 3 prey upon fish as well as their favorite meal, the moray eel. Although they are very venomous, their venom inducing teeth are at the back of the mouth.
The Olive Sea Snake
The olive sea snake is a true sea snake that never goes to land. We see this species from time to time in southern Indonesia, mainly on offshore pinnacles. It is one of the most venomous of sea snakes but is rarely known to have bitten humans. It’s prey mainly consists of fish and crustaceans, which it hunts along the coral reef. Unlike kraits, these snakes give birth to live young in the water. This would be the least common of the snakes that we encounter on the water.
Although we do see an occasional snake from a different species, it rarely happens. We are more likely to see a new species in the open ocean while cruising between destinations. With so many different species present in Indonesia this does happen very infrequently. Other than man, sea snakes have few natural predators, however, large sea eagles are one of their main threats. These large birds can swoop down to catch one when it comes to the surface to breathe. The bird will then fly high and drop the snake on rocks to kill it.
How to Behave Around Sea Snakes
Now we won’t state that sea snakes are a guaranteed sighting on a trip, but we do see them frequently. A popular question we get is “What should I do if we see a snake?!” The answer is simple, just relax and observe this wonder of nature. Unlike their land relatives, kraits will most likely ignore humans in the water. They are busy swimming along the reef looking for prey and are not threatened by our presence. It’s actually quite easy to slowly approach a snake to get a photo or video. They truly are the epitome of chill and almost never display aggression. On sites where the black banded krait are common, they can actively swim up to divers for a closer look. If this happens to you the key is to relax and keep calm, don’t panic or make sudden movements. Simply allow the snake to check you out, it will swim away soon enough.
Which side of the spectrum do you fall on? Do you find snakes fascinating or do you prefer to avoid them at all costs? We find that once a nervous guest encounters a snake their fears quickly dissipate. Much like sharks, many people become fascinated rather than afraid when they come face to face with a sea snake for the first time. On their second encounter they will actively try to get close for a better look! Although we certainly can’t guarantee a sighting, they are frequent visitors on the reefs of Indonesia.