Snakes in the Grass

The yellowy trees in the centre are Manchineel

Well not exactly snakes and I am misusing an idiom here… but it pays the cruising crew to be aware of potential dangers not usually encountered in their homeland. Reading through our ancient RCC pilot for the Antilles whilst harbour bound in Lanzarote there was a paragraph or two on the dangers of sea urchins, the manchineel tree, scorpions, dengue fever and sea snakes. Bites from the latter it notes are lethal without mentioning it is actually quite hard to get bitten by a creature whose jaws hardly open and who disappears quickly with any disturbance of the water.  The only spotty, slimline candidate we have seen when snorkelling is usually mooching on the sandy bottom just off the rocks and coral close to Jacks Bar, Bequia. The Manchineel tree  on the other hand has poisonous fruits and a sap that causes skin irritation so don’t take shelter under one from the rain; we blithely set off across the Atlantic and arrive unaware of what a manchineel tree really looks like.

Coconut palms in Saltwhistle Bay, Mayreau
– probably less dangerous than the beach bar’s pinacoladas
For several weeks Temptress’ crew wondered about the various trees fringing the beaches we explored – is that a manchineel or is that? Noneof us really knew. We soon heard though the urban myth (or should that really be” beach myth”) that more people die from coconuts landing on their heads worldwide than from shark attacks and no longer need reminding by our local friends to not stand under the crown of a palm tree when chatting! Eventually we discovered in Tyrell Bay, Carriacou what a manchineel looks like; at this time of the year yellowy small oval leaves and virtually every beach has several fringing the sand. Wide spreading limbs and dense foliage even in the dry season make them ideal shade…until it rains, and their abundant lethal fruit look just like small green apples. Then at Easter we learnt about and saw the effects of another poisonous plant referred to as “Brazil” by some American friends but correctly the Brazilian Pepper tree or the Christmas Berry; Schinus Terebinthifolius . It is part of the cashew nut family of trees and therefore a relative of poison ivy. This pretty red berried tree can cause skin irritation (think 1-2cm yucky blisters that go sceptic) when brushed against. The blisters we saw were acquired despite the victim wearing long trousers for a hike in the hills of Bequia – moral is to avoid trails where the vegetation has not been cut back or take a machete to hack it back.

Or you can simply stop taking walks into the hills or sitting on the beach and avoid the water unless prepared to be stung, bitten or stabbed by spiny urchins (the skipper forgot his shoes when swimming ashore to check our line in Cumberland Bay and promptly stepped on a spiny urchin, no easy cure he just had to wait for the spines in his heel to break up and stop feeling uncomfortable). Why not sit on the deck of a beachside bar and enjoy a sundowner instead? Well ok as long as you cover yourself with insect repellent containing plenty of DEET (at least 25% is recommended) – sand flies bites can be very itchy whilst the local mosquitos carry the risk of Dengue fever (which can be fatal if untreated) on some islands and specifically here in Bequia there have been a dozen or more cases of the almost unpronounceable and unpleasant Chikungunya disease in recent weeks.

Our first barraacuda

And fishing isn’t so safe either. Even before we ever dreamt of sailing to the tropics we had heard of ciguatera poisoning, a cumulative poison that builds up in certain reef feeding fish. The effects of the toxin are not pleasant and can be long lasting for the unsuspecting diner.  Temptress’ first Caribbean catch was met with mixed feelings – an almost three foot long barracuda, prince of the reef food chain and major cause of ciguatera poisoning in humans yet reputedly good eating. His big mouth of long sharp teeth and sheer size made handling our catch difficult but eventually Kevin freed our line. Then after some debate decided to go with the advice of our local pilot guides and cruisers fishing handbook and return the barracuda to the deep rather than risk poisoning ourselves. Several days later a Bequia resident and fisherman said he would happily eat the flesh from such fish if caught in the Grenadines as here they are not known to contain the toxin – ah well a missed opportunity but better safe than sorry. Tingling lips, severe sickness and possible long term side effects are not something we wish to experience first-hand. 

The good news is though that there are few Caribbean islands with venomous snakes and the sea snakes seen when snorkelling or diving and warned about in our old pilot guide are in fact harmless spotted snake eels. There are no sea snakes in the Caribbean or this part of the Atlantic apparently due to the salinity of the water. For some excellent pictures of this shy and quite pretty snake-like creature see here and here.