The day I went snorkeling I was the only one on the boat who had left the shore with that intent. I had heard we were going farther than usual to an island named “Nain,” about one hour by boat. When we arrived our guide began passing out bamboo tongs and explaining how to best capture “our” prey without getting stabbed by their hundreds of venomous spines. They had bags and tongs of bamboo to hunt their the renegade crown-of-thorns starfish who had been running amok, over-populating and gobbling up their beloved coral.
I plopped into the water and watched as many of the divers drifted down the sloping cliff ledge into the hazy blue. I swam for the shallows and drifted along, intermittently looking for these strange creatures and wondering how the fish could at once seem so disinterested in me and so aware of my presence as to constantly not be in my lumbering way.
I spotted three crowns-of-thorns and was a bit alarmed at how close I had gotten before seeing them. They leave a sort of white destruction in their path with the bones of coral sucked dry, cracked and broken. The ones I spotted were quite large (almost two feet across) and rigid with criss-crossing, wicked spines seemingly woven together by roman hands. I swam a distance away and pointed with both hands. When one of the guides spotted me he swam over, clapped his tongs in an amazing underwater clack (everything sounds like it’s taking place inside the center of your brain underwater) to summon others. I proudly supervised the extraction of these rigid yet passive demons then swam on to more interesting (and less spiny) waters.
I was becoming aware of a growing self-consciousness in the water that I had not had before. I had no armor, no wetsuit, and no defense should anything spiny, venomous our nasty decide to reach out and express its disgust at my visit. I tried to put this down but found myself more comfortable over bare, empty sand than those coral dreamscapes where all manner of life, recognizable and not, thrives. I tried to overcome these thoughts and swam above a sort of valley between two coral embankments and pleasantly watched critters of all sorts dart in and out of crevasses and shadows. My little valley came to an end with a large, round conglomeration of several types of coral, sea fans, anemones and other ocean-hair waving in the breeze. As I rounded its top I saw the back half of a little black and white striped fish the size of my hand wiggling hastily out of my field of view behind the coral. I swam closer to see the hand-shaped fish back out of its hole and grow into six feet of coiled movement. This is the second coral snake I have seen in as many trips out into North Sulawesi’s Bunaken Underwater Park. The last time Melody grew frightened enough for the both of us but this time I didn’t have that benefit. Melody’s phobia of snakes is most pronounced when she is surprised by one and that day I understood why.
Coral snakes (I have read and been told by countless Nature specials on public television) possess the most deadly venom in the world. Death occurs approximately one hour after a bite. I tried to slow my breathing as I quickly swam away to the safety of larger numbers of humans. I wanted to tell them but quickly realized that I had no way to and wasn’t sure if they would care anyway. I finally saw one guide go up to the surface to fix his mask and I too went up and said, in English, “I saw a snake!” “Snake? Yea…” Hardly as satisfying as I had hoped.
I decided to become this group’s self-elected snake-guardian and make sure no one went too close to where I had last seen it. Their star-fish hunting was distraction enough to keep them stationary and I felt better. However, one, unusually tall European man was not hunting starfish. He had a camera and was filming underwater creatures skittering here and there and his concentration was complete. He came close to where the snake had been and I kept my eye on him. Sure enough, the coral snake (by far the largest creature we had seen off the coast of Nain) slithered, no, glided over the ridge above the tall man. I began furiously pounding my fist into my open palm, one of the few ways you can make noise underwater with this soft flesh. He looked up, I snaked my arm and pointed behind him. He turned, saw nothing and flipped his palms up in question. I pointed, more emphatically as the snake slipped between his legs and up between his chest and the sand. He looked, down and gave me the “Ok” sign with one hand pulled his camera around with the other. This was not the reaction I had expected.
He followed the snake, closely. Documenting every curve and every effortless, weightless arc of its body, he moved with it. The snake was hunting. The snake we last saw had been hiding and had only emerged to take a breath. This snake was flying from one coral mass to another, prodding around, darting its body deep inside, striking, and whipping before moving on to another spot. The tall European stayed behind it and I stayed behind him. I was transfixed. At once I was frightened, jealous (of the images he was getting), and overwhelmed by the exquisite grace of its every movement. I watched as he moved the camera up its body in mid-flight, inches away, toward the leading, tiny head with intentional cinematographic tension and release. The snake did not care. It did not acknowledge this massive creature swimming feet away from him. I followed them for over thirty minutes watching it move through the water with the effortlessness of a ribbon on a gymnast’s wand through the air. At one point I saw it gliding up to the surface and followed. My head popped up to see a tiny stick, fifteen feet away, its mouth open, gulping air, once twice, three times. The snake was all that broke my horizon on the endless water. We were there together, the only two with our heads through the mirrored ceiling of his world and into mine.
A friend once expressed frustration at a poem by D.H. Lawrence called “Snake” which he was once required to read for class. In it, Lawrence encounters a black snake at his water-trough and is inwardly compelled to kill it yet overwhelmed by its regal, nonchalant beauty. Eventually he gives in and hurls a log from which it easily escapes into a dark hole in retreat from his pettiness. I think that my friend was frustrated at the excessive sentimentality with which he styles the snake “Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld, Now due to be crowned again.” I think in that conversation I agreed.
But then, while swimming with a man and a snake who were obviously swimming together, sharing something, if nothing other than each other’s presence, I felt, with Lawrence, that my own fear was also a pettiness; a pettiness fed by both knowledge of information ignorance of character. I knew what the snake could do. What I didn’t know (and what my tall European friend did) was what it would do.