A Serpent in Paradise

3 May

Black banded sea krait rising from the base of the sea

Not, honestly, the best thing to see while snorkelling

The labyrinth of reef-fringed karsts around El Nido, Palawan, must be one of the best island-hopping destinations in the world. Whether above water or under it, we’ve had the most amazing couple of days.

A little too amazing for the camera I bought in Vientiane, making that two cameras down in under four months, so you’ll have to take the ensuing purple passages on trust…

We’ve spent the last two days island-hopping, first on kayaks, then on a bangka, with Z’s new friend Dima, from the Ukraine, but based in Manila, and his ma, Natasha. It’s been absolutely idyllic.

Take Secret Beach, for example. You snorkel through a foot high crevice in a jagged grey limestone cliff, above a dramatic, turquoise underwater drop off where shoals of angelfish clog the water, into a lost world: white sand beach, shallow coral lagoon, all fringed by these surreal volcanic shards of dark grey cliffs, with crabs scuttling boldly vertical towards the swifts’ nest up above. And you, your companions and your boat, have the place all to yourself.

Or our last stop off but one on today’s magical mystery tour. You wind through a labyrinth of shallows, boxed in by sheer volcanic karsts, rocked by occasional waves, to a little palm-clad beach, fringed with gothic caves, in and around which shallow waves scatter in concert from every side.

Or the Mariloc Shine, a piece of religious practice which combines utter deranged fanaticism with an awe-inspringly laissez-faire approach in a way that only Filipinos can really manage* (though I guess Italians come close…)

Or the absolutely dazzling coral garden at about 7 metres, which we descended into using the anchor rope as a guide…

Anywise… We’ve been up close and personal with the South China Sea, thanks to our snorkels, and a boatman who likes to dive. I’ve seen silver tanigue whipping through grazing shoals of minnows, soaring and diving like underwater kestrels; lime-green parrot-fish chomping meditatively on coral, as their whippet-like cleaner fish flash like lightning at their tails; a myriad colours and shapes of coral; shells the length of my arm; lionfish, pennantfish, angelfish, emperor tang, wrasses; an entire family of clownfish protecting their anemone nest; a lionfish; needlefish; a million starfish.

Oh, and I’ve also got up close and personal with my prefrontal cortex. And am getting close to believing the feminist anthropologist Elaine Morgany (The Descent of Woman), when she theorises that early humans spent much of their waking life in water, escaping predators.

Now, it’s not unusual to see things that could, potentially, cause one serious damage underwater. But most, like lionfish, scorpionfish, stonefish, crown of thorns starfish, fire corals, jellyfish etc, are essentially not a risk if you keep your eyes open, follow underwater best practice and DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING, ESPECIALLY NOT CORALS YOU ENVIRONMENTAL VANDAL, YOU.

While it’s true that one feels (and is) more vulnerable snorkelling in a swimsuit than encased in neoprene, steel tanks, lead belt, diving jacket, flippers, respirators et al in diving mode, I have never experienced such a raw and primal reaction to perceived threat as I did the other day.

What happened was this. Z and Dima are 30-40 metres away from me, doing boyish things with the kayaks such as tying them together to form a raft and jumping off them, or playing a game called Hat of Doom.

I amble down five or six metres to take a look at some of those dazzling, iridescent vulva-type things which hang out on corals — think Georgia O’Keeffe meets Finding Nemo and Timothy Leary comes to the party — and some gorgeously coloured anemones.

I amble back up to the surface. My Western brain registers that there is a black and white stripy ribbon winding its way up in parallel with me, about two metres from me, and begins to wonder why I am finding this sinister. It looks like the most elegant piece of rhythmic gymnastics you have ever seen. A self-propelling, perfect S. Natural cheerleading.

My brain continues to ponder. This is not an eel, it thinks to itself. And why is it surfacing so suddenly? There is nothing edible at this depth, nothing to attack, apart from, err, me, and I am far too large for it. Where is it going?

Don’t be silly, says my brain to itself. This is only a little thing, narrow, slender, and under a metre in length. And most sea snakes, should it be such a thing, are not toxic.

While my brain is engaged in this rather sluggish internal dialogue, my prefrontal cortex has screamed “poisonous snake! run!!!”, produced a surge of raw adrenaline, and sent me hurtling across 30 or 40 metres of open water away from the snake and to the boys faster than I have ever swum before.

By the time I register that I am arriving, my brain has nearly caught up with the primeval instinct, and thinks the primeval instinct is extremely silly and needs a thorough slapping down.

I decide not to panic the boys unduly by forcing them out of the water since, rationally, had the creature gone in pursuit, it would have nailed me, and there is now ample distance between us.

Instead I say, with forced jollity, “Good lord! I think I just saw a sea snake over there!”

Full disclosure. I can and do scream like a girl at bugs, but that’s grossout, not fear. I can spot jellyfish, lionfish, stonefish, etc, and react appropriately. When I’ve seen land snakes, I’ve been perfectly calm.

This thing, however, set off a very, very primal reaction.

So later that evening, I decided to look up what I’d seen. A very unscientific process, AKA typing “Sea snakes” into Google images from a Filipino IP address, produced an image of the very creature I saw.

And, thank you, prefrontal cortex. The little scrawny stripey fella was indeed a banded sea krait, Laticauda colubrina. They pack, I learn, ten times the venom of a rattlesnake. They are also, the literature says remarkably docile and rarely bite. But on that, as I guess with so much else, the prefrontal cortex hasn’t read the manual.

*In brief: chap has vision of Virgin Mary in dream, directing him to heart-shaped island where he will find the heart of Christ and build a place of worship. Flash-forward twenty years or so after they located the island, and they still haven’t finished building it. And, no, it ain’t La Sagrada Familia.

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4 Responses to “A Serpent in Paradise”

  1. Anne-Marie May 4, 2010 at 2:02 am #

    Golly – sounds terrifying, and reminds me of the complete horror I felt hearing a rattlesnake rattle in Arizona – there had to be a good reason why the devil appeared as a snake in the Garden of Eden. Maybe Elaine Morgan does have a point.

    • MummyT May 4, 2010 at 4:18 pm #

      Yes! You do feel it before you think it, don’t you? I’ve done some more looking up and it seems most likely that the critter was popping up to the surface to sunbathe, which they do, apparently… xxx

  2. jessiev May 4, 2010 at 9:14 am #

    LOL. i am so glad your brain was WORKING Right. bet you could have beaten michael phelps there for a minute. what a lovely, lovely time you’ve had (besides that)…

    • MummyT May 4, 2010 at 4:20 pm #

      Yes! I don’t believe you can put a price on experiences, but a day island-hopping, with a lunch of fresh cooked snapper, tuna, squid and chicken, with tomato-cucumber salad, rice and fresh mangos, cost us $10 each…

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