October 2, 2013
More than once, we snorkeled and explored in Swallow’s Cave on the northwest tip of Kapa Island. For our first trip into the cave, we’d gone with s/v Gallivanter. The caves are so large that you can drive your dinghy straight into them. Upon entering the caves, we learned how the caves must have gotten their name, as we noticed many small swallows flying in and around the caves. We swam within the main cave, before swimming along the outside to a next smaller cave.
Eventually, Tam (s/v Gallivanter) and I returned to the dinghies to wait for the others. Suddenly, we heard a frantic, but muffled, yell through a snorkel that was amplified through a hole in the cave wall to the outside. I couldn’t tell if someone was in trouble, or if it was a “fun shriek” coming from the kids. It didn’t take long before I learned of the close encounter with a large sea snake.
Justine’s point of view:
“Upon entering the second swallow cave, I noticed that there was an underwater tunnel leading somewhere else. I could see light at the end of the tunnel, but I couldn’t tell what was on the other side. Eventually, Dad swam through the tunnel to investigate, and when he returned, he claimed that there was another small cave at the end of the tunnel. He went back to the smaller cave again, this time taking Colin and me with him. At the other end of the tunnel there is a cylindrical-shaped cavern that could probably only fit about a half dozen people. As we entered the small cave, I remember thinking that this would be a bad place to get caught with a sea snake. I noticed that there were many holes in the smooth limestone walls, both above and below the water. Out of my reach, there was a hole leading to the outside that was big enough for a person to sit in. That’s where the sunlight was coming from and how my mom could hear our voices. As the water flowed in and out through the tunnel, we floated up and down like we were in an elevator. We were all looking up, watching the walls above the water to judge how high or low we were going. At that moment, I happened to glance under the water and saw a 4-foot sea snake swimming away from the wall and about 6 feet away from us. It had not been there before. Colin’s back was to it, and it passed pretty close to him. Startled, I started screaming, “Sea snake! Sea snake!” But, my snorkel was in my mouth, so I got confused looks from Dad and Colin and my words were not understandable. Then, Colin caught sight of the snake and pointed it out to Dad. Swimming gracefully, the snake seemed to take no notice of us and swam down to the cave floor and out of the tunnel to the larger cave.”
Adam (s/v Gallavanter) had seen Wil, Justine, and Colin swim into the tunnel. Just as he was getting ready to enter with his kids, the sea snake swam out from the tunnel. He quickly changed his mind about going into the tunnel, but at the same time wondered if Wil and kids were okay. Everyone exited the cave unharmed.
The yellow-lipped sea krait is the sea snake found in Tonga. These snakes are actually highly venomous, but their venom is located further back inside their small mouths. It’s rare for humans to be bitten because the snake can’t get a good grip with its mouth. However, we were warned to be careful when reaching blindly into the water with our hands. It is possible for a sea snake to bite a hand, especially on the skin between the fingers.
This particular sea snake is capable of living both in and out of the water. We heard reports of these sea snakes climbing anchor chains, getting into dinghies and onto the cruising boats. One morning, someone woke to a sea snake on the bunk with her. It had climbed the anchor chain and dropped in through the open hatch above her. On that same morning, another boat reported finding a sea snake in their cockpit. Both of these took place in the Ha’apai island group, and that is also where a sea snake tried to board our boat too!