Sea snakes are air breathers probably descended from a family of Australian land snakes. They inhabit the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific and are highly venomous. Thirty-two species have been identified in the waters about the Barrier Reef in Australia. They seem to congregate in certain areas in the region about the swain Reefs and the Keppel Islands, where the olive sea snake (Aipysurus laevis) is a familiar sight.
Sea snakes have specialized flattened tails for swimming and have valves over their nostrils which are closed underwater. They differ from eels in that they don’t have gill slits and have scales. Due to their need to breathe air, they are usually found in shallow water where they swim about the bottom feeding on fish, fish eggs and eels.
The yellow-bellied sea snake ( Pelamis platurus ) is pelagic, and is seen on occasions floating in massive groups. Fish that come up to shelter under these slicks provide food for the snakes. Occasionally these yellow-bellies get washed up on beaches after storms and pose a hazard to children.
Aggressive only during the mating season in the winter, the sea snake is very curious, and they become fascinated by elongated objects such as high pressure hoses. Advice here is to inflate your BC so as to lift away from the bottom and the snake. Provoked snakes can become very aggressive and persistent –requiring repeated kicks from the fins to ward them off.
Persistent myths about sea snakes include the mistaken idea that they can’t bite very effectively. The truth is that their short fangs (2.5-4.5mm) are adequate to penetrate the skin, and they can open their small mouths wide enough to bite a table top. It is said that even a small snake can bite a man’s thigh. Sea snakes can swallow a fish that is more than twice the diameter of their neck.
Most sea snake bites occur on trawlers, when the snakes are sometimes hauled in with the catch. Only a small proportion of bites are fatal to man, as the snake can control the amount of envenomation, a fact probably accounting for the large number of folk cures said to be 95% effective.
Intense pain is not obvious at the site of the sea snake bite; 30 minutes after the bite there is stiffness, muscle aches and spasm of the jaw followed by moderate to severe pain in the affected limb. There follows progressive CNS symptoms of blurred vision, drowsiness and finally respiratory paralysis. A specific antivenin is available.