Look before you step (or swim, walk, climb, pee)
Updated: Dec 15, 2022
It took me a few days to grasp there was something missing on Australian beaches. Miles and miles of pristine aqua marine hues, white sand, and a few postcard palms leaning over the edge. But where were all the people….?! A scene like this in California would be hammered with droves of surfers, swimmers, tourists, umbrellas, and little children running with beach toys. It was a bit odd, if not eerie. Why hasn’t the whole world not flocked to live here? So we started to delve into the subject we had been avoiding since we decided to come to Australia - all the ways life here can kill you.
Right about this time, we encountered one of our first warning signs (in a city park, mind you). Not sure how a permanent sign could be placed with confidence that crocs were always reported within seven days, but okay.
As ecologists, we are around danger 24/7. It just becomes an ambient background noise that you can tune out most of the time. Other than a couple of apex predators, some poison oak, or a few spiders, the western U.S. doesn’t have much to concern travelers. But something told us we should be more informed here, even if we’re dragging our feet. We had heard about box jellyfish, a handful of venomous snakes, crocodiles of course, but we decided to finally do some substantive research… starting with the locals.
Australians live and breathe this environment all the time. We knew locals would be an invaluable resource. What prompted the conversation one night was a random python crossing the road.
Australian scrub python or Ameythstine python (Somalia kinghorni)
Just your “standard python,” our hosts chose to frame it.
“Ah yia, that thers a seeks-foota. Not da beegist, baut eets a goood sauz.”
Okay, we’ll ask someone else.
We started to catch on that 99.9% of the Australians we’ve met have been desensitized to what’s “normal” or “dangerous” for their area. A black bear is no big deal to us in California, but it may be to someone who’s never been to the States. A mountain lion, however, makes me shake in my boots. We asked what Australians typically watch out for, and the first response came fast.
”Jellies. Boxies and Portguese man o‘ war. It’s stinger season and don’t be out swimmin’ wit-out a stinger net.”
[confused facial expression]
”Many tawns up ’ere ’ave stinger nets they put out in der bay. Swim inside those.”
Well, we never tried them out. Out on the Great Barrier Reef, everyone was given thin “stinger suits” or full-body Lycra fabric to zip over their swimsuits. In the low season you don’t need to worry about it as much, but in high season, no one argues. A box jellyfish is considered the most venomous marine animal. The Australian species reaches up to a foot in diameter and tentacles can get to be 10-feet long. Venom-loaded nematocysts on the tentacles deliver the toxins to prey. Whereas most jellyfish float around, box jellies can swim up to four knots, with clusters of eyes on each side that contain a lens, cornea, iris, and retina. It’s thought they actively hunt their prey. All the more reason not to be in the water during “stinger season” (Nov-May).
Then we come across a bottle of vinegar provided by the local government at beach access.
Australian signs don’t hold back. The better the view, the more ominous the warning. Your car will likely turn over on this turn, there’s a croc waiting for you in the river bottom, if you don’t impale yourself on the way down, and here’s a lightning bolt to finish you off. In other words, be respectful, or Australia will kill you in five different ways.
We asked the hosts in Chillagoe, ”What kinds of snakes do you have around here?”
“Ah some Eastern browns,* and the like.”
”No big deal, you just look where you step. I had one in da toilet da other day.”
”The toilet in me laundry room ova der. Pulled it out wiz a snake stick- maybe a five or seeks-foota.”
”What happened to it?”
”Ah, took it ova to release it down da road.”
I looked at Elias in slow-motion. A smile showed up on his face. We ain’t in Kansas anymore.