Ocean Watch: Sea krait is snake that lives on land and in the sea
The tricot raye is a special type of snake called a sea krait, a snake that lives on both land and in the sea.
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The day I returned home from Australia, where snakes are a national phobia, I received an email from Northern Arizona University herpetologist Erika Nowak. She found my 2014 column about New Caledonia’s sea snakes and asked to use my photos in an upcoming presentation in Ecuador about snake conservation.
“I don’t really know the story of the New Caledonians’ support of snakes,” she wrote, “but I’d love to know more.”
I enjoy recalling my voyages to that friendly French colony, where residents not only welcome human visitors, but also welcome, and protect, their sea snakes.
The much loved, and most common, one there bears the charming name “tricot raye,” French for striped sweater. Signs on the beaches inform visitors that the tricot ray is New Caledonia’s mascot, and asks people not to disturb or harm them. Even when they crawl into the house.
During my first visit to these islands, my friend and I saw a tricot raye wriggle across a beach boardwalk and slip under the door of a souvenir shop.
As the storekeeper unlocked the door, Scott said, “Excuse me, but a snake just crawled under that door.”
“That’s OK,” she said. “He lives here.”
The tricot raye is a special type of snake called a sea krait, a snake that lives on both land and in the sea. At least five species of sea kraits inhabit the western Pacific and Indian Ocean. Other names for the tricot raye are yellow-lipped sea krait, banded sea krait and Laticauda colubrina.
Neither the Atlantic Ocean nor the Caribbean Sea hosts any sea snakes or sea kraits.
At night, sea kraits patrol coral reefs hunting for moray eels and other fish. I’ve snorkeled above the sea kraits several times, and they totally ignored me.
A sea krait once startled Craig and me, however, as we snorkeled next to each other. The lovely, graceful creature that we had been admiring suddenly rose up between us, took a breath of air much like our sea turtles do, doubled back down and continued hunting.
Sea kraits have a deadly toxin in their bite, useful in rapidly paralyzing moray eels and other fish, which the kraits swallow whole. Neither sea snakes nor sea kraits have any interest in biting people, but I would never touch, tease or corner one.
After a meal, sea kraits come to land to where they digest, lay eggs and, also like Hawaii’s turtles, sleep and warm up.
Nowak is writing a paper about how education and community support can improve conservation of snakes. If people are respectful, she believes, they won’t get bitten trying to kill venomous snakes.
New Caledonians agree. But then, that island nation has only nonaggressive sea kraits on land, and no terrestrial snakes. Australia, on the other hand, hosts 140 species of land snakes and 32 in the ocean.
Some people will never get over their fear of snakes, but a visit to New Caledonia might help. There you can buy tricot raye T-shirts, towels and trinkets while a real tricot raye naps under the floorboards.