x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Poisonous but shy sea creature that is best left well alone

Not a great deal is known about the sea snakes that live in the waters off the UAE - perhaps because they are 10 times more venomous than a king cobra. Thankfully they tend not to bite.

A sea snake seen in the waters off of the UAE.
A sea snake seen in the waters off of the UAE.

Beneath the waters of the Gulf, the sea snakes glide sinuously. In the winter they will move to the shallows, where swimmers would do best to avoid them.

On occasion, when the current is strong, they wash ashore - but they should never be touched, warns Saif Alghais, an associate professor of biology at UAE University and the executive director of the environment authority in Ras al Khaimah.

"Their venom is 10 times more [poisonous] than that of the king cobra, but the good thing is that they can't open their mouths as widely as that of a normal snake," he says.

"To bite a diver or someone on the shore, it would aim towards appendages like the finger."

In 2008, the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD) issued a public warning not to touch the reptiles after a member of the public brought a live one into the agency.

But people should not be alarmed, says Dr Himansu S Das, a marine biologist at the EAD.

"There are very few incidences of sea snake bites here, or globally. They do not attack or bite, even if you [come across them] underwater or come in close contact with them elsewhere. Their fangs are inwardly directed, so they don't have the muscles to bite [effectively]. They would have to chew your finger - which they would do if they got defensive or angry."

Should someone be bitten, they need to get to a hospital as quickly as possible. Sea snake venom can damage the nervous system and stop blood from clotting properly.

It can also have a range of other unwelcome effects such as nausea, vomiting, thickening of the tongue and numbness. On very rare occasions, people will die.

Of the roughly 70 known species of sea snake, five or six live in the UAE's waters. They grow up to two metres long and are usually to be found near coral, attracted by the abundance of food.

"They feed on small fish mainly," says Prof Alghais.

"They have to come to the surface to breathe - so usually when you see a sea snake it's an indication that there is a coral reef in that area."

Completely aquatic, the sea snakes of the Arabian Gulf are all from the genus Hydrophis, referred to as true sea snakes.

They live for 10 to 15 years. Females start giving birth after two years, to live young rather than laying eggs, and produce three to 15 offspring every year or two.

During the summer months the reptiles typically stay eight to 20 metres underwater, according to Dr Das.

In the winter they venture up towards the surface. "They prefer warm water, which takes them to the shallow areas of sea."

For now, thorough information on Arabian Gulf sea snakes and some of their cousins is sparse, says Dr Amanda Lane, a representative for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's species survival commission in Sydney, Australia.

The problem, she says, is that many species are "extremely cryptic and hard to find.

"Because many live in remote oceanic regions, it is only through incidental capture in fishing trawler nets that some species are known at all. Also many people fear being bitten, which does not encourage study."

According to the IUCN, approximately eight per cent of sea snake species have been classified as endangered, while a third are "data-deficient".

"[This means] that we do not know enough about these animals to know whether they are endangered, or even already extinct. Sometimes entire species are known only from one or two specimens," says Dr Lane.

But things are improving, she adds. "There is a growing interest in these animals and new things are being discovered every day."

zalhassani@thenational.ae