Bitten by a sea snake

Serpent swimming in shark sea
looking for memory in pink early light
between devil deep and wide blue sea
And so fatal can be its bite!

                                    - Ian Curr
Image by Mila shot on Deadman’s Beach on Straddie at low tide.

Mila sent me this picture with the words:

… il suo morso potrebbe perfino essere fatale: un ‘yellow-bellied sea snake’ which means ‘a yellow-bellied sea snake, its bite could even be fatal’

In 1980, I worked as a deck hand on a 30-metre steel prawn trawler in the Coral Sea.

The ship had a very rough and ready crew. The skipper and first mate would shoot sharks for sport from the bridge above while  I sewed damaged nets from the previous night’s trawl on deck below. We would trawl and sort all night. My job was to put all the prawns in a preservative (sodium metabisulphate) and packed them in cardboard boxes and then snap freeze them in the cold room below deck. On deck I worked in the tropical balmy night and would have to go don a fur suit and go below into a freezer where the prawns were snap frozen at minus 40 degrees centigrade.  The preservative would get on the deck and rot the tissue between my toes.

These and other incidents made my time on-board quite unnerving.

After a few days at sea, one night at dinner, the crew told me about a previous deck-hand who was bitten by a sea snake while sorting prawns from the bycatch.

The skipper quickly told the deckky to lie down flat on his back and to keep perfectly still and to breathe calmly.

They were an impossible distance from either land or the mother ship to get an effective anti-venom.

Everyone on board knew how deadly a bite from a sea snake is.

Doing as he was told, the bitten sailor asked the skipper if he was done for.

The skipper told him that a tourniquet would probably do no good because when the compression was released the poison would rush straight to his heart and may kill him instantly.

The captain told his crewman that his best chance of survival was that, if he remained perfectly still and calm, his metabolism would slowly degrade the poison now in his bloodstream.

I asked: ‘Did he survive, what happened?’

They told me it took two or three days to get to shore and a doctor, the deckky lay down the whole time and was pretty sick, but he came good.

It was a lucky ending for the deck hand but not so good for me.

I finally got off the trawler when the skipper damaged the hull by running it onto a bombie (a big coral shaped like a mushroom) off Cedar Bay in North Queensland.

I even had to take the fishing company to the industrial commission just to get paid for the catch!

There needs to be a strong union in the prawning and long-line fishing industry to protect workers from risky, unsafe, casual and low paid work!

Ian Curr
September 2015

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