Abu Dhabi is home to an amazing collection of marine life. Dolphins, turtles and even the occasional whale shark can all be spotted around the coastline, and these sightings are always met with immense joy and excitement.
But lately, a less-cuddly sea creature has been congregating in the emirate — one many people have no desire to see.
The Abu Dhabi Environment Agency (EAD) has issued a warning to look out for sea snakes swimming around the coastline, or washed up on the beaches in areas such as the Corniche, Saadiyat Island and Hudayriat Island. The regulator also advised the public not to try to touch or catch them, while anyone unfortunate enough to get bitten has been instructed to go straight to hospital.
Every winter, the UAE’s sea snakes, known locally as Bogni, gather in shallower waters to feed and breed. However, climate change and fluctuating sea temperatures are now causing abnormally large numbers to move closer to land.
So, is it best to swap the beach for the pool until summer returns? Or are sea snakes simply misunderstood creatures that deserve to be protected?
With the EAD launching a new study into the changing habits of these curious reptiles, we turned to one resident sea snake expert to find out more about these fascinating ocean dwellers and how they are being affected by global warming.
“Throughout the world, very little is known about sea snakes,” says Maitha Mohamed Al Hameli, section manager of the EAD’s Marine Assessment & Conservation and the Terrestrial & Marine Biodiversity Sectors. “There have been few studies into their role in the ocean’s ecosystem and how they interact with their environment.”
Are sea snakes poisonous?
Well, there’s good and bad news on that front.
On one hand, sea snakes are extremely venomous, but on the other they hardly ever actually bite people.
Maitha describes them as placid and unaggressive animals.
“Sea snakes only bite when provoked or in defense, and even then they don’t normally release their venom,” she says.
“If you spot one in the water, just let it be and do not harass it. It will swim away eventually. If it’s on the beach then you should also keep your distance and never try to move it or catch it. Even if it looks like it’s dead, it might still be alive. Sea snakes cannot move easily on land, so we always try to get them back into the sea as soon as possible. But this should be done by either the beach management team or someone who knows how to handle them properly.”
Why are we seeing more sea snakes?
There are around 70 species of sea snake spread across the Indian and Pacific oceans. They can grow up to two metres in length and they’re normally found around mangrove forests (such as Abu Dhabi’s Mangrove National Park) or coral reefs.
However, with climate change and other factors causing them to gather closer to the shoreline, they now face several additional dangers.
“Around inshore habitats, sea snakes are exposed to a number of pressures, such as coastal development and dredging, habitat loss, poor water quality and fisheries by-catch. Climate change is also noticeably changing their behaviour and this could eventually result in a decrease in their population,” explains Maitha.
Indeed, while five or six different species of sea snake are common in the UAE, some types of sea snake are already critically endangered.
Why should we care about them?
“They’re ecosystem health indicators,” explains Maitha. “As secondary and tertiary level predators they provide essential nutrient recycling, converting matter into resources that other organisms can use.”
Sea snakes feed on small fish and have the ability to dive to 800 feet to find their prey.
“As with any other predator, removing them from the food chain will lead to an imbalance in the ocean’s biodiversity,” explains Maitha. “Although most are benthic feeders roaming in the deepest levels of the world’s oceans, they are still an important prey control species.”
In essence, if we don’t start to combat climate change and work to protect our sea snakes, the rest of the Arabian Gulf’s marine life will eventually suffer too.
• Anyone who spots a sea snake should contact the Abu Dhabi Government on 800 555.
Harriet Shephard is an Abu Dhabi-based copywriter and freelance journalist with a particular focus on fitness, travel and lifestyle, which, along with good food, also happen to be her main passions when she's not typing away at her laptop.