All countries have interesting sea creatures; one which Tristan and I have had on our list to see in Fiji is the banded sea snake otherwise known as the ‘banded sea krait’ or its scientific name, Laticauda colubrina. The banded sea kraits’ name stems from the fact that they have white bodies with black vertical stripes. The female is three times heavier and can reach 128 cm (50 inches), whereas the male grows to only 75 cm (30 inches).
This snake is highly venomous, 10 times greater than that of a rattlesnake. The yachty rumour is that they can’t bite you because they have a small mouth and the only place possible would be between your thumb and finger, this is however an old wives’ tale. They tend not to bite because they are not particularly aggressive, but there have been cases where fishermen have been bitten while bringing in their nets.
What is special about this snake compared to other sea snakes is that it doesn’t spend all of its time in the water. The snake comes ashore to nest, find fresh drinking water, to rest and digest their food and use rocks onshore to help shed their skin. In fact after diving with three banded sea snakes we went to the dinghy dock at Paradise Resort in Taveuni and there was a small one sunning itself on the rocks! Unfortunately no one had a camera to photograph it.
The sea krait is adapted for the water by having a paddle-like tail which improves their swimming and the ability to hold their breath for 15 – 30 minutes underwater. With such a small head, you would be surprised to know that the males, whom are smaller, primarily feed on moray eels, while the larger females prefer the conger eels. The fact that they can eat eels larger than themselves dispels the old wives tail about not being able to bite a human. When they do find their prey they first paralyse the animal with their venom before swallowing it whole. One decent size eel can sustain them for weeks. Were we lucky to see three in one day or what? We haven’t seen any since.
So what has been our experience with this crazy creature? Tristan has seen a small one snorkelling off Taveuni Island in September. A couple of days later while Andrew and I were diving we spotted three. I followed one of them for quite some time and it was completely unfazed by me; it would stop have a look at me and continue in its search for food. The sea krait was gliding along and going in and out of caves and holes, which at the time I didn’t realise was it looking for eels. I honestly was very surprised to learn that they eat eels because like most people I thought they weren’t able to open their mouths enough to bite us.
Searching for eels, their main source of food.
While it is the first live encounter with a banded sea krait, back in 2011 when on Rah Island in Vanuatu we were fortunate enough to see a human version of the banded sea krait. On Rah Island they have a traditional dance called the ‘Sea Snake Dance’, which is the island’s Kastom dance and is only performed by men. The men paint themselves with black and white to mimic the stripes of the sea snake, carry a leaf in their mouths, sticks decorated with features and I think it was tomatoes.
A few more interesting facts:
- They typically lay a clutch of about 10 eggs, on land. The eggs incubate for about 4 months.
- They are found in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.
- The banded sea krait, like turtles, exhibit “philopatry” which means they return to the same beach to digest their food, rest and lay their eggs, similar to turtles.
- Kraits or sea snakes differ from land snakes by their tail. Kraits have a flattened tail which acts like a paddle to aid in swimming.
- Juvenile banded sea snakes spend more time in the water than on land, whereas adults spend about 50% of the time on land and in the water.
- The banded sea krait, while able to live on land, moves at about a fifth of the speed than it does in the water.
- They are preyed on by sharks, birds and larger fish and are particularly vulnerable when hunting among the coral.
- Their tail is larger than their head, which sometimes confuse and fool predators.
Information about the Banded Sea Krait was gained from the following sources: