Adventure on Snake Island
Lapped by the South China Sea and closer to the Philippines than the nearest city is Kudat, the northernmost town in Sabah, Malaysia. Only a kilometer from the very tip of the island itself is a small island, home to a lighthouse. It’s a tiny island in fact, you can walk around it in three minutes. The shoreline is rocky, with a small sandy beach. The sandstone rises up in the form of a small rocky hill covered in shrubs and vines. By day it is a great place to snorkel, but every night it is invaded by a visitor from the sea.
Just after sunset they appear and make their way up the beach to sleep under rocks and into the scrub to lay eggs.
Phil Lewis, Rowan Brown and myself had to go there to see the spectacle ourselves. Rowan’s friend Mr Nazlan sells sea shells, literally by the sea shore on the nearby mainland. He happens to have a couple of boats and was more than happy to take us out to the island to stay for the night. So the deal was struck, we were to be heading to the island as soon as the boat could be readied.
With the setting sun we pushed off, the ear-splitting putt-putt of the naked engine – complete with the exhaust exiting as a flickering, blue cone shaped flame destroyed any chance of a quiet journey. Minutes later we crossed the fringing reef and made landfall on the only strip of sand, protected in a small bay. The gear was unloaded and Phil bounced about like a runaway yo-yo, chomping at the bit to explore the island and its nightly visitors. We set up a camera, ready for Phil to see his first sea krait, and Rowan pushed past, and in the background of the frame despite my earlier request not to, casually picked one up before Phil could get a chance to introduce himself on camera and talk about how much he was looking forward to finding his first.
Sea kraits are weird sorts of snakes belonging to the four-species strong subfamily Laticaudinae. Although they are true snakes, and live only in tropical seas they are not, by definition true sea snakes.
True sea snakes belong to a very close subfamily Hydrophinae. Together they are grouped under the cobras-and-allies family Elapidae. But being snakes and living in the sea should designate one as a sea snake, right? Well, not really. You see the sea kraits are amphibious; they also live on land. Land is where they sleep, drink, mate and do something that true sea snakes do not- they lay eggs. True sea snakes give birth at sea, never coming ashore except by accident.
But Phil was soon off at the speed of, well, Phil-on-a-mission and quickly found his first that nobody else had looked at. He was totally in his element, dashing from krait to krait in a blur, like a kid in a candy shop.
As the night wore on, more and more swam up to the shore and crawled up to tuck themselves under a rock or in a crevice. One in particular was doing strange things.
Much larger than most of the others, it had gone beyond the flat, rocky shore and was headed up the near vertical cliff face. Phil and I just had to see what was going on. The assumption was that it was a female looking to lay eggs.
We filmed her as she reached the flat vine forest on top, being incredibly careful not to disturb her.
What she did then was remarkable, she very carefully pushed her snout through the leaf litter, obviously looking for somewhere to lay the eggs. Ticks appeared out of the leaves and crawled all over her, attaching between the scales. Phil and I were horrified, but tick concerns would have to wait as there was a sea krait to film. It is possible nobody has filmed a krait laying eggs in the wild before. She was obviously dissatisfied with the ground and moved on, heading into a thicket of vines we could not follow her into.
Back down on the water’s edge, a writing mass of kraits gave away something bizarre indeed. A heap (literally) of small kraits swarmed over a much larger female, vibrating their heads. It was a mating ball. The poor female was totally helpless under the mass of so many males. One of them was going to be a dad, but I don’t think they, or even she would know who.
The sea around the island is worth a look too, so we took to the water in the dark, with only two dive lights for the three of us. Moray eels, urchins, grouper and squid were among and over the shallow reef, while among a swarm of cubozoids was a remarkable imitation. A squarish body with long trailing tentacles did look kind of dangerous, but a closer look revealed it was a fish. The juvenile diamond trevally grows such incredible fin filaments to imitate a box jellyfish. On a very small juvenile these may be around 10 times or more of the fish’s body length. The presence of the real box jellyfish in the water made us turn and head for shore.
Settling down to sleep on the beach was no easy matter. As soon as I put my head down, curious hermit crabs scuttled over to check me out, climbing over my legs and around my head, casually pinching my ear or elbow at random. I just about dozed off when a thunder clap woke me up.
Rain hammered down in a tropical deluge so we sat around the fire we had made of drift wood against the cliff. Phil has a great way of emphasizing the misery with a realistic sounding gale effect he makes by breathing air through his teeth. It was funny though, this tropical island in the South China Sea, just like something off a movie set was so calm and warm one minute, yet so hostile the very next. Out of the shadows stepped a human figure. A fisherman was escaping the storm, saw the fire and came ashore to scare the hell out of us- or perhaps get some shelter.
Morning came and Mr Nazlan was heard long before he was seen with his barely floating boat. It was time to say goodbye to Snake Island for now…