If you’ve ever scuba diving and a two-meter-long sea snake storms out of the shadows, here’s what you should know.
First, stay calm. Although sea snakes rarely attack scuba divers, a venomous bite can quickly be fatal, as was the case with a trawler fisherman in Australia in 2018.
Second, if you are attacked by a sea serpent, your best bet for survival is to resist the urge to flee or fight.
“These big sea snakes can swim a lot faster than we can, so we can’t escape,” says Rick Shine, a herpetologist at Macquarie University in Australia. He adds that meeting the snake is also a bad idea. “The snake is likely to get quite angry about this and may even get into a more aggressive mood.”
So what should a diver besieged by sea snakes do? According to a study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, Dr. Shine and his co-authors suggest that you slide this highly poisonous reptile right on you and lick you.
The sea serpent doesn’t want to bite you, they say. It wants, well …
“In fact, it’s just a lovesick boy looking for a girlfriend and making a pretty silly mistake,” said Dr. Shine.
Dr. Shine used last year’s Covid-related shutdowns to analyze a data set collected in 1994-95 by Tim Lynch, a co-author of the study. At that time, Dr. Lynch received his Ph.D. by observing olive sea snakes (Aipysurus laevis) off the northeast coast of Australia. And during 250 hours underwater with 158 sea snakes, he discovered several notable trends.
For starters, olive sea snakes tended to be most likely to approach divers during the breeding season, which runs through the southern hemisphere’s winter months between May and August. Male snakes swam towards divers much more often than females. Men also spent more time examining human observers than women, sometimes wrapping themselves around Dr. Lynch’s limbs or flicked their tongues against his wetsuit or exposed skin.
After all, the habit of charging at something, like when a sea serpent swam rapidly towards a diver, was almost always preceded by other sea serpent gimmicks – such as
“There have always been these really consistent stories from divers about what appeared to be full-blooded attacks by sea snakes,” said Dr. Shine. “And you hear commercial divers say, ‘Oh, you really shouldn’t be diving in this part of the world in winter because the sea snakes are so aggressive.'”
But now, he says, all of this observational data has put the peculiar behavior of sea snakes into context.
“I’ve always expected the motivation for this behavior to be sex,” said Kate Sanders, an evolutionary scientist at the University of Adelaide in Australia who was not involved in the research.
After all, there are innumerable examples of males attempting to mate with anything other than a female of their own species.
“I mean, I’ve been courted by sea turtles in the water,” said Dr. Sanders, who is also co-chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Sea Snake Expert Group. “So yeah, I mean, I’ll buy it.”
If you are wondering how a male sea snake can mistake a human for a partner, remember that sea snakes gather information about the world around them through mixed senses of taste and smell, just like snakes on land.
“But when snakes went back into the ocean, of course, they lost the ability to pick up clues from the flick of their tongues because most of these important chemicals are too big to be transmitted through the water,” said Dr. Shine. “You have to rely on a vision, and it’s just not that good.”
Interestingly, Dr. Sanders states that about a dozen species of sea snakes live in these waters, but only the olive sea snakes and their close relatives, who are usually tango with divers.
One possible explanation is that male olive sea snakes are considerably smaller than females, which could mean that they need to be extra motivated to find and find a mate. And sometimes that excitement can lead them to look for love in the wrong places.
“I don’t know how you would put it other than the snakes put on their beer glasses,” said Dr. Sanders. “Your hormones distort your behavior.”