The Sea Snakes of Fire Mountain

I must admit that Indonesia has managed to get a pretty good grip on me in recent years as more and more routes have opened unique diving opportunities up with the expansion of quality liveaboards in the region. The diving is varied, exciting, and frequently spectacular. And I remain firmly convinced that some of the world’s best diving is to be found in the eastern quadrant of this sweeping archipelago.

In January of this year, I found myself arriving at a ratty airport in Kupang on East Timor to meet the infamous dive guide Larry Smith aboard a spanking new liveaboard called Adventure Komodo. The 75-foot aluminum twin diesel catamaran would be my home for three weeks as we explored some of the remotest areas of Indonesia. Our rambling northeasterly voyage of some 1500 miles would ultimately end in Sorong, an even rattier point of disembarkation on Indonesia’s west end of New Guinea popularly known as Irian Jaya for years until the residents decided to re-name the region Papua. Call it what you will, it’s hardly on any tourism guides (for good reason) unless you’re planning a circle tour of the world’s most filthy settlements. In that case, this is a “don’t miss” stopover where you can combine Third World squalor with an airport shed selling quite a nice selection of souvenir “penis gourds” in the latest fashions. It does give a whole new slant to the concept of airport duty-free shopping.

“That gourd is an excellent selection, sir. It goes nicely with your gold Rolex and has a certain understated style by limiting yourself to the 16-inch model. Other men less confident in their endowment might have gone with something larger, but you’re clearly a man of discerning tastes.”

But back to my host. Larry Smith has managed to justifiably earn the reputation as one of Indonesia’s premier dive guides. He’s been kicking around the country for well over a decade and most of the top end resorts and liveaboards have benefited from his tutelage and skills at scouting out the best dive sites. A native Texan, he’ll never be mistaken for a native in his adopted country. But he might be typecast as a banjo-picking moonshine vendor or deviant molester of barnyard livestock. With a prominent ZZ Top style beard and 250 pounds amply distributed over about five and a half feet of stature, he’s not a pretty story in a Speedo.

Larry’s the kind of guy that if you asked him for a turtleneck on a cool blustery day, he’d probably think you wanted something to start soup with. His resemblance to a sort of Snuffy Smith hobbit character is wonderfully out of place, but when it comes to knowing diving in this remote part of the world, there are few his equal.

He hustled me and my assistant Lina Hitchcock into the torpid heat of the Indonesian summer where the humidity and temperature both hit triple figures. We climbed into a battered taxi and soon we were comfortably settled in the air-conditioned sanctuary of the vessel.

We began our odyssey from Kupang and explored sites around Timor, Alor and Wetar before slogging along the entrance to the Banda Sea. Larry explained that he had tentatively identified some interesting diving on some of the remote uninhabited islands en route to the classic Spice Islands centered around tiny Bandaneira.

Six days into our trip, I awoke to find us drifting easily in the calm seas just off a mostly submerged active volcano that arises from the deep depths smack dab in the middle of exactly nowhere. The top of the volcano rises about eight hundred feet above the water. Her steep sides of sheer rock with scattered vegetation desperately clinging to whatever soil and moisture available is a bit off-putting at first observation. Especially, when you note the wispy plumes of hot vapor escaping from the summit. A recent lava path scars the west side of the island known simply as Gunung Api, or Fire Mountain to the Indonesians.

Gunung Api is barely a quarter mile in length and about half that in width. Her sheer granite cliff faces make landing a virtual impossibility and most nautical charts don’t even bother noting the presence of this monolith. But something in Larry’s curiosity sparked slating this for further exploration. He had stopped in once for quick look-around before in bad weather but we would be some of the first to actually spend some quality diving time.

As we geared up, Larry admitted that he couldn’t offer much in the way of a briefing but he did note that he had seen a few sea snakes on his previous visit and we should be on the lookout for those reptiles in addition to the great pelagic action.

My assistant and model Lina is not a big fan of snakes. Most people aren’t. On our far flung dive explorations over the years, she’s gamely posed with the occasional sea snake that appeared on our dives but these encounters typically were with a single specimen who cautiously inspected us and quickly moved on. That was fine with her. Schooling sharks, ripping currents, deep wreck dives, even Komodo dragons never gave her pause… but snakes engendered a major dose of the “creeps” and she reminded me of that.

Larry just grinned through his beard and splashed over with veteran filmmaker Bill MacDonald to explore the shallows near the cliffs. We opted to begin on the deep sheer drop-off that featured visibility in the range of 150 feet and a staggering array of hard and soft corals washed by a slight current. I quickly burned through nearly all the film in two cameras and we ascended the wall face to the shallows in the shadow of the cliff.

Almost immediately Lina saw a snake. She pointed excitedly at the big fellow swimming to her left and I delayed pointing out the nearly score or so other snakes that were approaching her right side. I gently steered her around to the reptile mob hell bent to make her acquaintance and she looked back at me with the same expression that Indiana Jones had when they dropped him into the Well of Souls and found the ancient ruins to be alive with hostile serpents.

“Snakes, it had to be snakes,” she silently pantomimed as her eyes widened to the rough diameter of manhole covers.

I grew up with snakes as pets and I find them fascinating. But I understood her anxiety. These sea snakes are some of the most poisonous animals in the world. In fact, there is no anti-venom for their virulent bite, a deadly neurotoxin. Larry had already related that the locals referred to them as “cigarette snakes” since if you were bitten, you had just about enough time to smoke a butt before checking out… permanently.

I could see that Lina considered that anecdote to be right on point as a baker’s dozen of the animals slithered over, under and around her. I could see another cloud of snakes approaching us from the shallow caves at the island’s face. Behind them I could see Larry almost completely obscured by a writhing group of snakes as he settled on the rocky bottom in front of MacDonald’s video camera. No question, if snakes bothered you this was a scene right out a Serpentine Dante’s Inferno.

There were literally hundreds of sea snakes swarming in the shallow depths. I settled to the entrance of one cave at a depth of about 25 feet. To find a place to rest my fins, I had to sweep about two dozen snakes from underneath me. On the cave ceiling and walls, a continuous moving mass of snakes dominated every square foot. I signaled Lina to swim into the cave so I could position her with the snakes for some size perspective.

She gave me a return signal with a raised single digit that clearly conveyed that she would do no such thing.

It really didn’t matter. Snakes were everywhere and whatever intentions she may have entertained about keeping her distance were quickly erased. But the snakes were not aggressive, they were simply curious. We discovered that they were receptive to being handled and I gathered several to ease them into the scene for MacDonald’s lens. Larry and I both were covered in snakes like feeding yellowtail snapper with Cheese Wiz. It was all a bit surreal.

To surface, we had to swim away from the island then shoo our scaled followers away to gain entrance to the dive launch. Back on the Adventure Komodo, we discovered that an eight foot snake had climbed the swim platform, continued up the boarding stairs to the dive deck and had settled in for some sun on the dive lockers. Pandemonium reigned briefly as the intruder was ushered over the side by a frantic crew member.

Lina asked if we could forego the next dive and simply take up skydiving without parachutes. Her reticence to return did nothing to diminish the boundless enthusiasm of Larry, Bill and myself who thought it was one of the greatest dives we’d ever experienced.

We had time to squeeze one more dive in before losing the last of the afternoon light. If you think diving with hundreds of poisonous snakes is exciting when the sun’s out, try doing it when the sun disappears behind the mountain and you’re left in virtual darkness. Again, we were treated to a seemingly endless parade of snakes ranging from four feet to nearly ten feet in length.

None of us could come up with a plausible explanation for the congregation of sea snakes at Gunung Api. It’s a harsh atmosphere of mostly strong currents, big waves and powerful surge. There is no beach or possible protected area for the snakes to lay their eggs. Our only thoughts centered on the fact that the submerged vents from the volcano emit substantial heat that warms the cool sea water considerably. Perhaps this attracts the cold blooded reptiles and offers them a unique refuge in the middle of a hostile sea.

I was despondent to leave such an unique and adrenaline pumping site. Who knows when I would have the chance to come back and if the rare calm conditions we enjoyed that January day could be replicated. But the wind was already kicking the sea up and we reluctantly moved north toward the protection of the Banda islands a few hundred miles over the horizon.

Luck was with me however. In April I was exploring a different route with another expedition vessel and we altered course to intersect Gunung Api on our southerly route back to Wetar. This time the wind was screaming and we eased into position on the only lee available on the island’s north end. I had previously raved about the place but explained that we would not be able to dive the east side where the caves were due to the crashing seas from that direction.

So we gave it a shot in the only place safe to make entry. My wife, Gretchen, accompanied me on this voyage and it’s worth noting that she is afraid of both house cats and most birds. I didn’t harbor any great expectations that snakes would be a welcome addition to the marine life.

Part of this is explained when you consider that she is from New Jersey, a region of deeply contrasting cultural nuance. She was raised around the tony resort communities near Brielle and Manasquan where bold fashion statements are required subjects as part of the early middle school curriculum. That’s why a black leather jacket is considered a perfectly normal accessory with your beach outfit in mid-August. Jersey girls can be tough. It was initially a bit discomforting to learn that my gentle wife not only knew how to sharpen a strait razor to a fine edge, but that she also knew how to use one. And I don’t mean to shave with. If that’s not typecast enough, consider that her real-life best girlfriend from childhood is actually named “Rizzo”. I couldn’t make this up. If I did, they’d probably hurt me.

We went to a Bruce Springsteen concert last year where Rizzo had to be talked out of back-handing the fan next to her who had committed the unpardonable sin of encroaching into her seat area and causing her to spill her drink

But the pioneering spirit of the average resident of New Jersey pretty much ends if they lose sight of Rt. 95 or, God forbid, they are faced with the daunting task of actually pumping their own gas. New Jersey is the only state that actually forbids self-service gas pumps. So Gretchen’s first trip to Maine (where we live) included the dual trauma of actually touching a fuel pump nozzle and seeing a moose. Moose, who are roughly the size of Budweiser beer trucks but as docile as gerbils, were to be feared. But she would think nothing of taking on a local Soprano’s style wise guy who dared to cross her in a dispute over a parking spot.

When a swarthy Italian guy in a Cadillac wearing a shiny sharkskin suit with enough gold chains around his neck to shackle a cruise ship wants to challenge me in Newark late on a Saturday night, I generally express my regrets and beat a cautious retreat. Gretchen responds with her finely honed version of the state motto. (Loosely translated in several dialects as: “You talking to me, asshole?)

So, in truth, I’ve been conflicted over her fear of small animals in marked contrast to her undiminished ferocity when it comes to stalking the mean streets of the New Jersey wilderness.

We slipped into the water and again were treated to gin clear visibility, a vibrant reef and profusions of color. Inwardly I sighed at the absence of snakes but within minutes they made their appearance.

Once again, before the dive I tried to convey to the other divers that a relaxed attitude and calm demeanor would allow the snakes to satisfy their curiosity without much threat. Don’t interfere with their swimming, never block access to the surface, and generally sort of stay loose and observe a quasi-mutual non-aggression pact and everything would remain right in the cosmos of man and sea snake.

I’ve never looked over a more skeptical audience in my life. I might as well have suggested that we all take turns playing in the legendary traffic in Jakarta, blindfolded.

Imagine my surprise when Gretchen gracefully intercepted a big snake and skillfully maneuvered it into a better position for my camera with the sun back lighting the scene. Over the course of the day, she interacted with dozens of snakes and allowed us to capture images otherwise impossible to coordinate. Professional photographer Burt Jones who had benefited from some of her timely snake wrangling expressed some surprise at her comfort with the animals.

“I thought you were afraid of snakes,” he inquired.

“I thought I was, too,” she replied. “But I found them to be just curious creatures that accepted my limited contact with no problem at all. It was exhilarating and beautiful.”

Just like a front row seat by the brass pole at the “Bada Bing Club”, I mused.

Later that evening while we enjoyed a glass of wine with the rest of the divers, a small mouse scurried across the afterdeck and over the feet of several lounging guests. My fearless wife erupted in a bloodcurdling scream and levitated a good four feet above the chair she was comfortably reclined in. We were able to eventually talk her down from the table after assurances that the crafty rodent had departed.

Poisonous sea snakes by the dozens, no problem. A tiny version of Stuart Little invokes near panic.

Go figure.

Regretfully, my good friend Larry Smith passed away in Indonesia in March 2007. He was probably one of the most revered dive guides in history and his passing was mourned by all who knew him. His pioneering work in exploring Indonesia and training other guides in the fine science of finding “critters” for guest photographers is a legacy few will equal. Vayo con dios, amigo.

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8 thoughts on “The Sea Snakes of Fire Mountain”

  1. Love this story! This is on my bucket list to dive. Seems I get distracted by all the other wonderful dive sites when I’m in Indonesia. I can appreciate the comment about Sorong airport (and harbor, I might add) being “so-rong.” Went to the Philippines and Indonesia recently. Glad I went to the Philippines because I can now take it off my list. Everything I saw in the Philippines I see in Indonesia, but everything I see in Indonesia I don’t see in the Philippines. I can’t get enough of Indonesia. Hate that it’s just so far away.

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  2. well just got back from Indonesia–Sorong airport has one barely functioning light bulb—however right behind this is an almost complete new airport –big and international. What this will mean for diving in Raj I am not sure. Stayed at the lovely and totally perfect Papua Paradise–so worth it for accommodations…diving–birding–loving staff……the corals and fish and dugons are magic…..Snake story—-in the wonderful Wakatobi we were surrounded by sea kraits—when one came up and circled the neck of a snorkeler—before she could react the dive master _Mr fab Muji—had taken it off her neck. When this happened again to same snorkeler the next day—well it probably was her bright neon pink mask–why? Well sea snakes have very poor vision and you can see them bumping into the coral as they seek a safe refuge. Also know that their teeth are far back in their mouth…..said snorkeler goes home with tales to tell..

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    I was there last month. No snake stampedes, but regular encounters with mostly sociable Chinese sea snakes and banded sea kraits (as well as lookalike snake eels).

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  4. In 2017 I plan to leave my home in New Jersey,turn my back on I-95, and travel to a liveaboard in Sorong Indonesia to dive Raja Ampat.I hope to be swarmed with sea snakes and everything else the region has to offer.Until then I guess I’ll just keep riding my Harley and when I need gas I’ll have to pump it myself…lol

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  5. I had the opportunity to dive this isolated mount in the midle of the Banda sea in 2010. I was informed about the presence of sea snakes, but within my context of prior experience of one or two isolated and disinterested snakes who were intent on searching for food. I was enthusiastic about the combination of pelagics and snakes. As Bret experienced , we dropped in in the wall and immediately saw huge schools of barracuda, dozens of turtles, ribbon worms on coral. So many, that we were constantly looking in all directions to see what might next appear. We worked our way around to the gentle slope of the island and saw our first sea snake swimming away from us. With peaked interest, we quickly followed. Around the corner, we encountered the same writhig mass of very curious snakes. It was unbelievable. Males persuing a larger female trying to mate. Snakes swimming amongst the unsuspecting divers where they swam around the legs, torso, and right past their mask. One snake persued me on a parallel course, suddenly turned toward me and “kissed” the lens on my video camera. You can see the split tongue flick out to smell this reflection in the dome. What a day. It was one that your mind’s eye will never forget. Alas, after 11 days, from Maumere to Ambon, not one shark was sighted.

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  6. …and do you know why it is called Sorong?

    Because it is So Wrong!

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  7. Since I’ll be leaving out of Sorong for a 12-day trip next March, I was interested in this article. I’m with Lina on this one – I’ll have to pass if someone offers me a dive on Fire Mountain.

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  8. Can’t get enough of Bret’s stories. Not only interesting subjects but his writing style is first rate

    Keep them coming.

    Herman Gross

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