Fun and Venom in the Andaman Sea

By Dave Fox
Krabi, Thailand

Snorkeling in the Andaman Sea a couple of weeks ago, I was chased by a Laticauda semifascata. For the benefit of my non-Latin-speaking readers, that translates in English to a “black-banded sea krait,” which, as you already knew, is a water-dwelling snake whose venom is ten times stronger than that of a cobra. If it bites you, there is a good chance you will die instantly. If you do not die instantly, you will probably die within about 4.7 seconds.

1112 220px-Laticauda_semifasciataI was not aware a deadly monster was chasing me. My wife, Kattina, who has a degree in marine biology and knows a lot about stuff like Laticaudi semifascati, watched this all go down. She opted, however, not to mention that an eight-foot-long, poisonous snake was trailing my big toe by about eight feet.

She did not say anything for a couple of reasons:

1)      She had a snorkel in her mouth, which makes it difficult to say, “Hey Dave, you are being chased by a Laticauda semifascata.”

2)      She knew that if I was aware of the snake’s presence, I would freak out, and the beast, sensing my fear, would go in for the kill. And Kattina really hates it when I whimper.

We went to Krabi to partake in a variety of fun, near-death experiences. The previous afternoon, we had joined a sunset snorkeling boat excursion. The excursion was supposed to include a couple of daylight splashes, a sunset beach barbecue, and an after-dark plunge in which we would swim among phosphorescent plankton that glow like underwater fireflies. Signing up for this outing sounded like a fine idea. Never you mind that I swim with the prowess of an out-of-breath Golden Retriever.

So our motorboat picked us up 30 minutes behind schedule. Once we boarded, our guide informed us there would be no beach barbecue. Then, he started the boat’s engine so he would not be able to hear us asking why there would be no beach barbecue.

Our group consisted of eight travelers – me and Kattina, two British couples, and a husband and wife from Prague. We motored to some of the rocky outcroppings Krabi is famous for. We all donned our snorkels and masks, and obligatory life jackets, except for the Czech lady, who decided not to participate in the snorkeling part of our sunset snorkeling cruise because, unlike me, she was intelligent and deathly afraid of water.

Everybody jumped in and started snorkeling around. I eventually put on my mask and attempted to do the same. I had a difficult time seeing much because I was not wearing my glasses, and also because my mask immediately flooded with water. Kattina tells me, however, that the blurry things I saw were amazing tropical fish.

We got back in the boat and motored to a different location. I tried a different mask. This time, my mask did not fill with water — not that it really mattered, because I still was not wearing my glasses — but I flapped around in the sea for a long time and was having fun until it dawned on me the winds had picked up, and the waves were getting big, and they were carrying me farther and farther away from our motorboat.

The next thing I knew, everyone else was back on the boat, except for Kattina, who was yelling at me to stop drifting out to sea in heavy winds. So for around 20 humiliating minutes, I kicked and flailed frantically, wishing a Laticauda semifascata would come along and just put me out of my misery quickly. But that did not happen. I made it back to the boat alive.

194The sun dipped low on the horizon and the sky morphed from daylight-blue to Sriracha-red, and it was all quite lovely. We waded ashore to an island and ate some spicy noodles, in lieu of our barbecue. Then, once the sky was pitch black, we got back on our boat and anticipated our phosphorescent plankton dive as we gurgled back out to sea.

In all honesty, I was not wanting to do this phosphorescent plankton dive thingy. I had had plenty of daylight fun, almost getting swept to my watery grave in the Indian Ocean. Plunging into the water in total darkness so I could see weird, glowing blurs bob in front of my nose did not sound like a relaxing way to end a sunset non-barbecue cruise. I was wondering to myself if Kattina would think I was a weenie if I didn’t participate in this last activity, when the boat captain stopped the engine about 100 feet from shore and said, “Okay, if you’re staying at Railay Beach, your hotel is over there.” Our excursion, he was telling us, was finished.

One of the British couples started disembarking. Kattina and I looked at each other. No barbecue, and now no phosphorescent plankton dive?

“Wait a minute,” I said, “weren’t we supposed to have a phosphorescent plankton dive?”

“We cannot do that tonight because it is too windy and dangerous.”

That is what I hoped our guide would say, but he did not say that. He said, “Oh? You want to do a phosphorescent plankton dive?”

No. I did want to do a phosphorescent plankton dive. I wanted to wade ashore to dry safety, and consume alcoholic beverages with my glasses on. But we had already been denied our barbecue. I couldn’t let these guys get away with this.

“Hell yeah, we want to do a phosphorescent plankton dive!” I said.

“Yeah!” Kattina said. “We paid for it!”

And I thought to myself, “Damn it, why does she always have to back me up like that?”

So the guide asked the boat captain to motor us two minutes away from shore so we could jump in the water where it was deep enough. Kattina and one of the British guys jumped in. Everybody else stayed on the boat because they did not want to jump in the water in the dark. But they were all being supportive of me for sticking up for our rights. “Good for you, Dave!” said the expressions on their faces. “Don’t let these bastards rip us off! Now jump into the water, in terrifying darkness, because you paid for this and you deserve to get your money’s worth!”

So against all reason, I did jump in, and flailed my arms frantically in front of me – because that is what you have to do to get the phosphorescent plankton to glow, and also because flailing my arms frantically is what I always do when I am in the water.

When I flailed my arms, I saw what looked like little radioactive flecks of dandruff floating in the water. Then I saw my life flash before my eyes. So I got back on the boat and decided phosphorescent plankton really aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

The next afternoon, wanting a safer snorkeling experience, I suggested we stick close to shore. So we paddled kayaks to a sandy beach where we could swim in shallow water. That is when the Laticauda semifascata went after me.

Kattina assures me I was never in danger. These sea snakes generally do not bite humans because their mouths are too small to get a good chomp.

So I never did get bitten by the black-banded sea-krait. I never even saw the thing. Kattina told me about it that evening, once we were safely on land, with cocktails.

But when I returned home to Singapore, I decided to do some research on the snake because, you know, it’s always interesting to learn about the venomous animals that chase you. So I turned to Wikipedia, where I learned that in Japan, the Laticauda semifascata, is called the erabu.

“The erabu snake is a winter staple in southern Japan where it is believed to replenish a female’s womanhood,” Wikipedia taught me. The article does not say anything about what the snake is believed to do to a male’s manhood. But I am guessing that if I had been aware of its proximity to my toe, my panicky squeal would not have brought out my macho side.


[Black Banded Sea Krait photo:]

Published on Saturday, December 3, 2011

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