The Taste of Sea Snakes

The greatest coincidence happened. I enjoyed my first free dive in the ocean surrounding Pongso no Tao – also known as Orchid Island or Lanyu. I tried to relax my body for the final breath-up, executed a duck dive and started finning towards the bottom of the sea while holding my breath. Then, startingly, at ten meters deep, I saw a snake was swimming straight at me. Quite scared, and wearing only my swimming shorts, I swiftly turned around and finned back up. The snake too hastened its pace, definitely following me until only the very last moment when it decided to pursue another course. On my next dive to the bottom, at eight meters deep, another snake swam up towards me, wanting to close in on me. I quickly retreated and broke through the water surface grasping for breath in a small panic. Enough bottom diving for today, I thought.

I was reminded about how the local ocean writer Syaman Rapongan wrote that when he learned how to dive, he felt that the ocean needed to get to know him gradually, step by step. The ocean needed to taste him first.

But the real coincidence happened when I left the ocean water. The particular diving spot we had visited was not really known by tourists and difficult to reach so we were alone all afternoon, despite it being tourist season on the island. When scrambling over the sharp rocks, I noticed two locals, an older man and a guy around my age, preparing their spearfishing guns. I glanced at the man several times as he seemed familiar to me. Finally, I ignored my shyness and went over saying “maran kong” (“hello uncle” in the local language) in an attempt to start a conversation. The man asked me where I come from and I replied that I am from Belgium. All at once he started speaking French to me and I realized that this man was the writer Syaman Rapongan. During my research I had found that he had studied French at university.

We chatted a bit and to my surprise I discovered that he was my neighbour on the island. I explained to him that I hoped to talk to him more another day and he told me that he is quite busy with writing a new novel and crafting a traditional boat. By way of a goodbye I urged him ‘not to go hunt fish too late’ – it was already past four in the afternoon with the sun setting well before six. My remark was meant as a joke since he repeatedly writes in his novels about how he went dangerously spearfishing too late and alone, to the despair of his parents and cousins. Syaman Rapongan laughed and replied: “It’s my habit, you know that.” And into the ocean, he descended.

*

Unfortunately, my encounters with sea snakes have not ended. I am not sure whether they like me, hate me, or are just curious… Is my bright white skin or my fast finning attracting them? I felt it was odd that they never seemed to have an interest in my diving partners.

Yesterday, I was executing one last deep dive on one breath, aiming to break my 26 meters record before heading home. And then it happened again: I almost bumped into a small snake which rapidly followed me upwards. And I filmed it! Kind of. Terrifying.

Today, I had a brief conversation with Syaman Rapongan and could not help myself but asking about the sea snakes. He explained that the local Tao people regard the sea snake as an ugly animal. This means that they will never eat them. But he reassures me that they form no threat to humans. The big adult sea snakes have their teeth too far in their throat. Only the little young ones have little teeth at the front of their mouth. “They pose no danger,” he concluded: “The small ones only sometimes bite a little bit. Just to taste.”

*

– This text was written during my field research stay from September until November on Pongso no Tao (Taiwan).

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Joeri Verbesselt (°1990) is a Belgian activist-artist-art-historian who investigates future ecological imagination. His artworks can have various forms: writings, films and performances. Verbesselt published several essays and one short story. His graduation film 'retreat' had its world premiere in the CPH:DOX international film festival of Copenhagen in 2020. Since November 2019 onwards, his artistic research is clustered in a PhD in the Arts, for which he obtained a Fellowship from the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO). Verbesselt is a member of the Lieven Gevaert Research Centre for Photography, Art and Visual Culture (University of Leuven), an arts organization which publishes and organizes lectures, conferences and art exhibitions. He is also a member of the artist and research collective ‘deep histories fragile memories’ (LUCA School of Arts, Brussels). Currently, he is conducting field research and filming within indigenous contexts in Taiwan.