Ocean Watch
Susan Scott

‘Sea snake’ sightings
are likely false ID

If you read my e-mail recently, you'd think Hawaii is crawling with sea snakes. Visitors and residents alike have reported seeing snaky things in the waters off all the main islands. Some sent pictures; others wrote detailed descriptions. One just wrote, "I think I saw a sea snake."

All writers, however, want to know the same thing: Was that really a snake?

My answer is probably not, but maybe. This wishy-washy reply comes from a maxim I learned long ago from one of my UH professors. Never, he taught us, tell someone they didn't see something. Not only is it insulting, it's bad science. People see what they see.

Fair enough. The question then is, What do biologists call what someone saw?

The conventional wisdom about sea snakes in Hawaii is that there aren't any. That means none of the world's 55 species breed here or routinely hang out here.

Nor do they live anywhere other than the tropical Pacific and Indian oceans. That means the creature one reader found in the Gulf of Mexico was not a snake.

Most sea snakes stick to coastal areas, estuaries or river mouths because they come ashore to lay eggs. One species, however, the yellow-bellied sea snake, inhabits the open ocean.

These beauties float in the marine debris of offshore current lines, eating the small fish that hide there. Yellow-bellied sea snakes bear live young offshore and, therefore, never have to visit land.

When oceanic currents are unusual, like sometimes during El Nino years, one or more of these snakes drift to Hawaii.

An acquaintance told me that once a yellow-bellied sea snake slithered across his surfboard as he took off on a North Shore wave. And in 1999 the Waikiki Aquarium displayed a live yellow-bellied sea snake found on a Maui beach.

Since that's the only species ever recorded in Hawaii waters, and its markings, black back and bright yellow belly, are unmistakable, my guess is that the people who wrote me saw snake eels, which are fish.

Still, some look remarkably like snakes. Snake eels can have spots or stripes on their snakish bodies and swim along the ocean floor in serpentine slithers. Usually, these eels hide beneath the sand, but some emerge in late afternoon to hunt along the ocean floor.

One reader sent me a banded sea snake picture she found on the Internet, saying that her Kauai sighting looked like that. But some of Hawaii's snake eels also look like that. Without a photo of the real thing, it's impossible to say what it was.

The other picture I received looks like a magnificent snake eel, common here, especially around Magic Island.

Like moray eels, snake eels might bite if provoked, but usually they aren't interested in people. Nor are sea snakes. Leave these creatures alone and they'll reciprocate.

It's not likely that Hawaii is suddenly crawling with sea snakes, but we are crawling with snake eels. Hawaii hosts 16 of the world's 250 species.

Still, in nature anything is possible. If you see a snakoid thing, try to get a picture.

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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