National Geographic : 1972 Apr
of New England, in New South Wales, agreed. They were right. As we swam along that first day, a second snake appeared, then a third. Ben, Hal, and I converged on them. Eva, Ben's wife and diving partner, joined us. Before long, we knew, one of the snakes would come up for air. "That's the worst time," Ben had warned us. "That's when they notice you, and some times come right at you." Suits Protect Against Cold and Quarry Ben and Eva set heir underwater cameras for close range. Hal and I tested our snake sticks-aluminum rods with pistol grips at one end and tongli e jaws at the other. We were covered head to toe by diving suits of foam rubber to pro ect against the July chill of the austral winter-and the possibility of snakebite. Although at least one offshore sea snake, Astrotia,can bite through quarter-inch neoprene foam, the suits offered fair protec tion against the shorter-fanged species. One of the snake left the bottom, angling sharply upward. H saw us, shifted course, came straight in. [is unmarked mustard yellow skin showed him to be an olive sea snake, Aipysurus la vis. His kind could reach better than six feet in length, with a heavy body and a mouth ig enough for serious bit ing. He had a neat, blunt cobra head and the cobra's large dark e e. His face was pleasant, fixed in a small smie. He kept on comi g. What would he o? Probably nothing. What could he do? Kill one of us, perhaps, if he could pierce our rubber armor. He came within six inches of y right leg. But the jaws remained closed, th pace leisurely. He took a single breath, and eaded for the bottom. Snake hunting i a sometime thing. We moved around the wains, sometimes finding a solitary olive snake on the prowl around the foot of a coral head sometimes seeing no ser pentine sign at all. hen, one morning, a new and imposing kind of sea serpent came wind ing and glittering nto the hazy edge of my field of vision. As it swam closer, I saw a pale and dark-patterned body as thick as my arm, and a broad unsmi ing head. I dove too soon and grabbed too quickly. Tanglin tried to its tail, vered he 568 My snake stick caught the animal well back along his body. Immediately he turned, snap ping viciously, and began sliding back toward my right hand. The jaws of the snake stick could not hold him. I resisted the impulse to drop snake and snake stick and do my best to walk upon the water (there being no way to get out of it), made a left-handed grab for a point just be hind the gaping pink mouth, and held on. My foam-rubber gloves, I reasoned, would pro tect me if I missed and he didn't. The snake threw a couple of coils around my arm, braced to bite if my grip should loosen. I made urgently for the distant boat, crawled up the ladder, flipped my victim into a wet burlap bag, and sat down to do a little serious breathing. Hal came aboard to view my catch. "Great!" he said. "Astrotia stokesii. Not common here. He's a big one." "I know," I said, stretching and flexing my cramped fingers. "He was really trying to bite you." I nodded in fullest agreement. "Let's find out what would have happened if he had," I suggested. We found a paper-wrapped candy bar, stuck it in a finger of the glove and offered the glove to A. stokesii. He clamped down on the finger. I pulled out the candy bar. There were neat fang holes in its wrapper. "That's interesting," said Hal, with mas terly understatement. Close Calls, but No Catastrophes Other snakes turned up. We collected sev eral, all olive snakes. One demonstrated the versatility of the serpentine head by dislo cating his jaws and sliding the top one over to hang a fang in my gloved finger. That one, fortunately, did not penetrate. Hal flipped another snake into the boat, only to meet him coming down the ladder as he was going up. Again, no telling bite was delivered. Next morning we strapped on Aqua-Lungs and fanned out across a new stretch of bot tom. Ben beckoned to me from 75 feet away. As I swam toward him, I saw him maneuver ing to get shots of a pair of snakes. Mating? I couldn't tell. There was reason to believe that g with trouble, Eva Cropp clings desperately to an olive snake that attacked as she nare it. When the three-foot reptile snapped at her gloved hand, Mrs. Cropp pulled :ausing the head end to react by holding fast to the stick. She eventually maneu r catch to the boat, where captured snakes were studied and their venom collected.