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Let's talk about lifers

published6 months ago
4 min read

Early mornings are action packed wrangling the two ankle biters and getting everyone fed and ready for the day. On the 4th of February everything was pretty much the same until it wasn't. I was just about to leave the house when I checked my phone - I had 4 missed calls from Kyle. Knowing he had left Watamu for Nairobi in the earlier hours I wondered if something might have happened. So I immediately called him back.

Excitement was apparent straight away, "Guess what we rescued?" asks Kyle toying with me straight away. We have reached a stage with the book where certain rarer species of snakes needed to complete it are becoming a priority. With this in mind I shot for a unicorn, "A Golds Tree Cobra" I answered. " HAHAHA I wish dude. No we got a Yellow Bellied Sea snake. So get over to the farm and get some photos!" responded Kyle.

The Yellow-bellied Sea Snake

The Yellow-bellied Sea Snake is by far the most pelagic of all sea snakes, living in open ocean far from coasts and reefs. They are frequently seen on oceanic drift lines, traveling around the ocean using surface currents and storms. Their distribution appears to be largely determined by warm water temperatures, oceanic currents, and the recent formation of land bridges that have limited greater dispersal. The Yellow-bellied Sea Snake only eats fish. It hunts by approaching its prey covertly or by remaining motionless at the surface and ambushing fish that come to shelter beneath it (small fish are often attracted to inanimate objects such as floating debris). The snake executes a swift sideways swipe with its mouth agape to grab any fish that comes too close.

Most people are only likely to come into contact with a Yellow-bellied Sea Snake if a sick or injured animal washes up on shore. In fact, many sea snakes washed up the shores on New Zealand last year. While these specimens are typically in poor condition, they nevertheless represent a risk if picked up or wash up on a person in the surf. This species is likely to bite if handled harshly. Although the fangs are fairly short (1.5mm) and only a small amount of venom is normally injected, this venom is highly poisonous and contains strong neurotoxins and myotoxins. Muscle soreness and stiffness, drooping eyes, fatigue, and vomiting are all symptoms of envenomation, and a significant bite can result in total paralysis and death. Anyone who believes they have been bitten by a Yellow-bellied Sea Snake should seek medical assistance straight away, even if the bite appears insignificant (sea snake bites are initially painless and show no sign of swelling or discolouration). This species has been responsible for fatalities in other countries, but none have been reported in Kenya.

Milking the Sea Snake

Njeri aka 'mama nyoka' milking the venomous snake

Photographing venomous snakes always gives me a buzz, however the fact that I would be photographing a snake which is at or nearly at the top of our shot list just gave me an extreme rush. I grabbed my camera bag and made my way swiftly over to the snake farm.

I arrived early before Alex, the snake handler which got the call, had returned with it. While some snake handlers prepared the milking station, I simultaneously set up my photography station. Then the waiting game started. As always when there is something super exciting happening, time seems to drag on for an eternity.

After what felt like hours, in actuality it was closer to 20 minutes, Alex arrived on his motorbike. The bucket containing this amazing snake was taken into the lab, followed like a rockstar by his entourage. We all watched as he opened the bucket and then stepped back to let us all have a look. There it was, one of the coolest snakes on the planet!

Once in the milking room, a strict plan for the milking and then the photo session was made. Njeri, the only professional female snake handler in Kenya, volunteered to milk the snake while the other snake handlers supported her. I would document the milking and then the snake would be put back in the bucket for some time to reduce stress before the photoshoot. It was paramount that the snake's time outside of water be kept to an absolute minimum, as they are unable to maintain an even blood pressure in their bodies without being supported by water.

Photographing the snake was a very quick process as we had a very short time window to prevent any damage to the snake and the fact that unlike its terrestrial cousins, this snake was not going to move around the box. Once it was placed in the light box, I quickly snapped the shots I could before we returned it to the bucket and got ready for its release.

It was quite a special experience to be a part of as Royjan Taylor had rescued the only previous specimen from Watamu, 6 years ago. His son Eric Taylor, who also saw that specimen as a young boy, was going to release the second specimen ever found. After checking the snakes condition and making sure it was fit enough for release the decision was made to release it as soon as possible.

Nancy Njeri and Eric Taylor releasing the snake at Short beach

We drove over to Short Beach for the release as the outgoing tide current is strongest there and would aid in taking the snake back out to sea. As we arrived, curious tourists scattered ecstatically energised by our arrival with a venomous snake. We waded into the water and released the snake into the current. At first it was completely motionless as we followed it as it drifted in the current. After a few minutes it lifted its head above the water and took a breath then suddenly erupted into a swim further into the current and was taken out to sea.


I hope you enjoyed this special behind the scenes story and got to see our adventures in creating the book on deadly snakes. The yellow-bellied sea snake does not have any recorded fatalities in Kenya but is a venomous snake, if you see one please treat it with respect.

Thank you for reading,

Karel


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