Ocean Watch
Susan Scott

Friday, July 15, 2005

Sea snake

After reading my column last week about sea snakes and snake eels in Hawaii, reader Chris Cole wrote me about an experience he had in 1995 off the Waikiki Aquarium.

Chris was sitting on his longboard when a tiny head popped up several inches from the water and looked over the rail of his board. To the surfer's astonishment, the snakelike thing climbed onto his board, slithered across it and then dropped down the other side.

Chris noted the creature was bright yellow with black spots or stripes, and it swam away on top of the water, graceful, alert and in control. "What do you think?" he writes. "Snake or eel?"

That's the best description of a yellow-bellied sea snake I've heard. These snakes are a brilliant yellow below and on their sides with black backs. Toward the tail, the solid black back becomes black spots.

But besides these distinct colors, it's the behavior that's so convincing. Sea snakes are air-breathing reptiles that swim on the surface, in the water column and along the reef in a manner quite different from eels. Graceful, alert and in control describes them perfectly.

"I clearly and vividly remember the incident like it was yesterday," Chris added. And that's the beauty of close encounters with wild animals. These experiences can touch us in unexpected ways and sometimes change our lives.

Such a life-altering experience occurred when Idaho visitor Doug Shea encountered another of Hawaii's native reptiles, the green turtle, or honu.

"After having the opportunity to swim with these magnificent creatures in Hawaii," Doug writes, "I found that I no longer had any interest in hunting, which had been part of my life since childhood. I was a responsible hunter and always had great respect for the animals I was hunting, but while swimming with these turtles, something came over me and I knew that I could no longer enjoy hunting."

Doug, an annual Hawaii visitor, writes that he doesn't think everyone will have epiphanies like his, but "the opportunity to interact in a safe manner with sea turtles, dolphins and other animals can have a very positive effect."

But under the Endangered Species Act, our honu are listed as a threatened species. When does interaction become harassment?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service publishes the following ESA guidelines: "Harass means an intentional or negligent act or omission which creates the likelihood of injury to wildlife by annoying it to such an extent as to significantly disrupt normal behavioral patterns which include breeding, feeding or sheltering."

The sunbathing turtles of Laniakea speak for themselves by not moving when surrounded by people, and returning to the same human-crowded spot day after day. These turtles are clearly comfortable around people, and in showing us that, they are their own outstanding advertisements for sea turtle conservation.

They are also changing peoples' lives. Doug now shoots wildlife only with a camera.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Marine science writer Susan Scott can be reached at http://www.susanscott.net.

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