sea snakes

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Itty-bitty fangs

Annie was right when she said the black-and-gray striped critters I saw popping up on the surface of the ocean all around us were not, technically speaking, snakes. They were indeed sea kraits. (So what’s the difference, right? As far as I can figure it, sea kraits like the Niuean katuali return to the land in order to mate and lay their eggs while sea snakes pretty much just stay in the water—but don’t hold me to this.) And it’s also true that while they’re one of the most deadly creatures in the world, they don’t really bother people. Mostly because they have these itty-bitty fangs (if fangs can be itty-bitty) and they’re in the back of their mouth. So basically you’d have to jam a finger down their throat to get bitten.

That said, there was still something a little spooky about snorkeling over a cave-riddled and coral-covered lagoon and watching as hundreds of banded sea snakes (I’m going to insist on calling them that) uncurled themselves and, in lazy loops, slithered towards the surface—sometimes just a foot or two away from where I nervously floated—to take a breath of air and have a look around. Then, just as quickly, they’d slither back down to the bottom where they’d curl up with a dozen or so of their pals.


photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

I was not tempted to touch one (Annie says their ventral scales, needed for slithering on the shore, feel “creepy”). I was not tempted to stick my fingers in any of the little holes in the rocks where the small coral fish they like to feed on hide. In short, I behaved myself. Which is why I was so surprised, after our successful outing, to get out of the water and step directly on a sea krait. Which did indeed feel creepy. Fortunately, the katuali was very cool about everything. And did not bite. Even as I screamed like a little girl. Which brings us to another Niuean Rule: Just because there are snakes in paradise, that doesn’t mean you will necessarily end up being banished. It’s all up to you. Nonetheless, watch your step.  

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Swimming with the snakes

With electricity out on the island again yesterday and the dive center’s back-up generator kaput, it was easy to see why Annie was so thoroughly frustrated. Without electricity, it would be impossible to fill the tanks for this morning’s scheduled dive. Leaving four divers, myself included, with little choice but to cancel the outing and tramp back through the jungle to our hotel, the Matavai, where we’d laze away another day around the fresh-water pool drinking beers and hoping to spot one of the pods of spinner dolphins that usually spent their mornings in the cove below us. But Annie, anxious not to lose paying customers, had something else in mind.

“What do you reckon, David?” she said in her Aussi accent. “Are you game for a little snorkelling in Snake Gully?”

Hmmmm….You know what? I love diving and hanging with Nemo and the parrot fish and other denizens of the deep, but I’m not crazy about snakes. Particularly snakes in the water. Did I really want to go swim with a creature whose venom, they say, is ten times stronger than that of a rattlesnake? Not so much.


photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

“No worries,” Annie assured me. “No one on Niue has ever been bitten by a sea snake. Or if they have, they never lived to tell the tale.” Aussie humour—don’t you just love it? Seeing the concerned look on my face, she smiled and slapped me on the back. “Besides, they’re not really snakes. They’re sea kraits.”

“What’s the difference?” I asked her.

She shrugged. “Not much, I reckon.”

There’s something faintly Garden of Eden-ish about this remote South Pacific sanctum and, as you’ll recall, a snake—literally and metaphorically—plays a key role in paradise. This was much on my mind yesterday morning. It was foolish, I knew, yet I couldn’t help feeling that simply because my week on the island has been so magical, eventually something bad had to happen. I mean, that’s always the way it is, right? You take advantage of what’s offered—float on your back naked in a sacred pool, stuff yourself to the gills with pawpaw and taro, swim with the snakes—and invariably someone comes out of nowhere bellowing, “Now you’ve done it! You’ve messed up! And you are henceforth banished!” So certainly you can understand why I wasn’t crazy about the idea of swimming with the snakes. Or kraits. Or whatever they were. But, you know, life is what it is and sometimes you go along with the plan even when your gut tells you, “You’re going to get in trouble big time if you eat that apple.”

Thus, I shrugged and told Annie, What the heck. I reckoned I’d go snorkelling in Snake Gulley. 

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Notice from Matavai management

There’s something decidedly Twilight Zone-ish about going to Niue. For one thing there’s only one commercial flight a week in and out of the island. For another, to get there you fly out of Auckland, New Zealand, at 10pm Friday night and, after a four-hour flight, arrive in Niue 20 hours earlier than when you left (which is to say at 2am Friday morning). Try and figure that one out.

Despite arriving in the middle of the night, half the island is hanging around the airport, which is really nothing more than a small wooden building with a corrugated roof. It seems that if Niueans aren’t here to pick a relative up, they’re there to send one off (the Air New Zealand flight doesn’t even cut their engines; in a scene straight out of Casa Blanca, they dump their passengers as quick as they can, load the plane up, and high-tail it out of there 40 minutes later). It also seems that a fair amount of islanders go to the airport on Friday night the way people in other cultures go to clubs or the cinema—as a form of entertainment. When I arrived, there were all these families and young kids running around, picnicking on fried chicken and throwing the Frisbee around with the dog, even though it was 2 in the morning.

A van picked me up and drove the 10 or 15 minutes to the only real hotel on the island, the Matavai Resort. At 2:30 in the morning, there wasn’t a single light on anywhere in the hotel. Instead, a very prim and proper Niuean, named Heme, was standing rod-straight behind the front desk, oddly illuminated by the yellow light of a half-dozen or so hurricane lamps. Heme, who spoke with an Indian accent, wore a frangipani flower behind his right ear.


photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

“As you see, we have no electricity,” he said, smiling broadly, as if he’d just performed a successful magic trick for me. Then he handed me the following note, which he’d obviously carefully handwritten himself:

“Notice from the official Matavai management: The spare part hence needed to repair the burned-up generator has to be flown from the U.S. to N.Z. Getting it to Niue posses another set of problems particularly if the weekly flight out of Auckland just happens to be full, as it always is.

“The predicted result is that we are likely to continue to experience disruptions to the power for the coming week or month. That’s the bad news; the good news is that, with many thanks to the council government, we now know well in advance when the power will be cut and will provide you that information on a prompt basis so as to plan your stay accordingly. Thank you for your understanding!”

“Did the spare part come in on my flight?” I asked Heme. He smiled and shook his head.

“I see.”

“Maybe next week,” he said, cheerfully. I asked him how long they’d been waiting for the part and he said two or three months. Maybe longer.

It seems that the entire island is powered by two diesel generators. Or was until one of them mysteriously caught fire a few months ago. Now the only source of electricity is the surviving generator. So the island is divided into quarters and every section gets electricity for approximately six hours a day, determined by some sort of rotating basis that, as best I could figure, somewhat resembles the spin of a roulette wheel.

“Can you tell me when the power at Matavai will be back on?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I’m sure I have no idea,” he said. “Maybe at six. Maybe at noon. Yesterday we got no power at all.”

And with that, he handed me a hurricane lamp and told me my room was out through the garden and up the stairs and to be careful that I didn’t step on a sea snake or an uga.

I was too tired to ask what an uga was or why there might be sea snakes hanging around my bungalow. By now it was three in the morning and was a brisk 80 degrees with at least 80 percent humidity. My polo shirt was drenched and sticking to my skin. The idea of making my way upstairs in the dark to a black, airless room (there was, of course, also no air-conditioning)—one possibly already inhabited by sea snakes or ugas—seemed like a foul idea. Instead, I dragged my luggage through the garden, aware of the high-pitched hum of mosquitos, cicadas, and a host of other unseen insects, to a bruised oval, only slightly illuminated by moonlight, that I took to be the pool. I striped down to my boxers and eased myself over the edge. The water was only slightly cooler than the night air but nonetheless felt refreshing.

And so I spent the next several hours. Floating in a dark pool in the inky, hot night, watching the nighttime drama of small silhouetted animals—geckos? snakes? ugas?—chase each other up palm trees or into the dense vegetation, waiting for the sun to come up. When the first orange glow crept up out of the ocean, I got out of the pool, grabbed my luggage, and found my way to my room where I came across several geckos but no sea snakes. I slept like the dead until awakened by the startling rattle of my ancient air-conditioner coming to life. It was just noon. Evidently the power was back on. At least for a few hours.

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