This article was originally published on SailNet in July, 2000.
Neverthless, snakes serve a very important role on our ecosystem and the importance of these reptiles cannot be understated. I don't, but many people do, wish a death sentence on every snake they see. I leave them alone and hope that they will leave me alone so that we can peacefully coexist. No, I am not terrified of these creatures, but I do respect them and give them their space and a wide berth. I am told that people who are educated about snakes have no fear. That may be true, but I will never be comfortable handling them.
Poisonous sea snakes are found predominantly in the tropical and subtropical waters of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans, most often in and near river mouths and protected coastal waters. The pelagic sea snake, pelamis platurus, has a remarkably wide geographic range, which reaches the western coasts of North and South America from the Baja peninsula to Ecuador, and the waters around Hawaii. Poisonous sea snakes are not found in the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean, or along the North American coast north of Baja. The only US State in which sea snakes are found is Hawaii.
All snakes are cold-blooded creatures. Consequently, their distributions are restricted to warm waters and true sea snakes are only found in the Indo-Pacific region. There is concern that if a sea-level canal were constructed across Panama, they could become introduced to the Caribbean.
The sea snake is a true air-breathing reptile. These critters can hold their breath for long periods while hunting, and even sleeping, on the reef. They must eventually come to the surface for a quick breath of air and these brief trips to the surface can scare the devil out of curious divers and fishermen since the snake will often swim directly at a hovering diver or boat on the way to the surface. These snakes mate and give birth to their young on the shore, but spend the rest of their lives hunting fish, crustaceans, and eels amongst the nooks and crannies of the reef. Snakes make their rounds along a reef, and their persistence (not to mention breath-holding ability) is impressive.
There are over 31 species of sea snakes in northern Australian waters alone. All are possibly dangerous to humans, but relatively few of these have caused bites of significance. Even though, sea snakes are found predominantly in the northern waters of Australia, storms may carry an occasional specimen southward, with authenticated bites as far south as Sydney. They are not likely to be found in waters off the southern coast of Australia, where alleged sea snake bites are essentially always due to some other organism, usually an eel.
|"If you get bitten, anti-venom will probably not be readily available, even though evidence of paralysis indicates the patient should receive it."|
There is just not much to do for a bite while underway. The use of adrenaline as pre-treatment when using anti-venoms is still being studied. There is risk of an acute systemic allergic reaction that can be fatal, but varies from one anti-venom to another. People who have had previous exposure to equine derived products may be at greater risk. Should you have any anti-venom products on board it is recommended that the product information sheet be read before use, and if necessary contact be made with a specialist in the field.
If you are sailing in the Great Lakes or the Gulf Coast you may encounter maritime garter snakes. These have been seen swimming in fresh water lakes 100 meters (315 feet) or more from shore. They will also swim in salt water. The common name is broad-banded water snake and they grow to between 22 and 36 inches—a record is 45 inches. They can be found from extreme southern Illinois to central Texas and the Gulf Coast. These snakes are not dangerous.
Sea snakes are all Indo-Pacific and most are venomous. Symptoms are attributable to multiple organ systems, with neurological symptoms predominating. They may occur as early as five minutes or as late as eight hours following the bite, but usually occur within two hours. If you're bit by a sea snake, here's how you can connect what actually might be going on with what you're seeing.
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