I love snakes. They are amazing, quirky, fascinating things. They are widely misunderstood and thanks to modern storytelling, have a bad rap as vicious killers. True that they may be killers, but they are not more of less ‘evil’ survivalists than any other wild animal in the food chain.
Most of the time they just want to eat and sleep, and that means that they will move away from conflict if they can – most people end up bitten by a poisonous snake because they messed with it (accidents happen, I realize, and not *all* snakebites are because a human was acting like an idiot. Read this incredible first-hand account of the Naked and Afraid producer being bitten last year in Costa Rica.)
Have you ever heard of a “snake attack?” No, because 99.98 percent of the time snakes just don’t jump out of bushes and attack you; it simply just does not happen*. Except in the case of the Fer-de-lance aka El Terciopelo aka Bothrups Asper aka Velvet Killer aka Lancehead Viper. And even then with this highly aggressive snake it’s incredibly rare – I’m not an expert by any means, but from my understanding the snake has to feel threatened before it gets to the state of ‘attacking’ you and even then it’s in defense of what the snake perceives as a threat. Still though, check this out. The snake actually starts toward the boat when noticed in the water.
I wanted, more than anything, to photograph a Fer-de-lance last week in Costa Rica.
A little background: The Fer-de-lance is not the most poisonous snake in the world (that honor goes to the docile coral and taipan snakes for land, and the Belcher’s snake for sea) but it is one of the most dangerous. Like India’s cobra snake, the Fer-de-lance thrives in several types of tropical climates and does well near populated human settlements. Called the “Costa Rican landmine,” it’s found in abundance in central America, southern Mexico and northern South America (the list is probably wider if you include sub-species) and is responsible for somewhere around 70-85 percent of snake bites per year (which for Costa Rica specifically averages around the 600-800 range.) It’s aggressive, it’s unpredictable, it’s territorial and it’s big: adults can be up to eight feet long with an impressive four+ foot striking distance (that’s a lot for a snake.)
Snakes typically have two types of venom (more or less without getting all scientifical on you): Cytotoxins and Neurotoxins. They do different things but overly broadly speaking in incredibly generalist terms, the differences are that one attacks your nerves and the other attacks your flesh.
(e.g. – In the case of nerve toxins, you will stop being able to send/receive commands from your brain and will be unable to breath, for example. In the case of Cytotoxins, the venom will literally destroy your flesh – making internal hemorrhaging a life threatening issue. The Fer-de-lance belongs to this group.) Unrelatedly (but since I live in L.A.) the common Southern Pacific Rattlesnake has been found in certain cases to have morphed its venom to contain both Cyto and Neuro toxins. Fun!
I’ve seen a Fer-de-lance twice: the first time I was in Costa Rica we encountered one on the road after I’d reached Jaco after 12+ hours on my bike – I was literally too exhausted to get out of the truck for a closer look (but my companions did.) I also had not yet fully come to appreciate snakes for being awesome. The second time was a few days ago – in a small Pacific beach town of Dominical. We were driving up to Nuacaya Falls for a hike when I saw a sign that said, “Reptilandia.” Of course I had to stop. We wandered around this amazing facility looking at all kinds of snakes endemic to Central America – the eyelash viper, and snakes found elsewhere – the anaconda.
I had just come to the Fer-de-lance enclosure and was oohing and awwing and telling Michele about the snake when the nearby owner, a rugged Australian, said if I wanted to get a closer/better shot that he’d open the enclosure up for me. (This is the part where you should go back and read paragraph four where I talk about this snake’s attributes.)
Let’s recap: The owner of a reptile facility in a small beach town in Costa Rica was going to open the door of one of the world’s most aggressive and unpredictable snakes and I was now going to be face to face with no barrier with an adult Fer-de-lance. It was basically all my Fer-de-lance dreams come true.
I was still thinking about my dreams coming true when he swung the entire front pane of glass open and the coiled snake lifted its head before I was mentally prepared. The Australian was totally relaxed but I found that I could not get actually get my legs to move. I was maybe just over four feet away (within striking distance already) but I wanted to get closer (it was dark in the enclosure and I wanted the best shot possible.)
Never in my life have my feet felt literally cemented to the ground. I shot a series of rapid fire bursts with my camera as my brain raced with scenarios of the snake leaping to freedom, killing everyone in its path. My stomach knotted and tingled. The snake’s black tongue danced and her head bobbed, trying to gauge if we were a threat. I may or may not have pooped.
During this minute escapade into sheer terror-dom, the Australian said one or two things about how that particular snake won’t “take a hook” (meaning it thrashes when you try to lift it with one of these) and I possibly responded but I have a fuzzy memory of anything else except the weighted feeling in my legs and the tension of my inner eyelids as my eyes bulged out of my head while I tried to shoot.
The door re-latched. I’m sure I mumbled some form of ‘thank you’ in my post-adrenaline haze as we walked away.
It was perhaps one of the absolute coolest experiences in my entire life.
The * in the text above is to note an exception to the “snake attack” rule: Black Mambas in Africa have documented incidences of ‘chasing’ humans. I once saw a documentary video showing this, but for the life of me I can’t find it for reference here. They have burst speeds faster than humans can run, and can lift more than half of its body off the ground (most snakes cannot do that.) Terrifying.