When the Flying Classroom took off for Palau—a small nation of islands—I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was in the Pacific Ocean, somewhere between Hawaii & Indonesia, and I knew that only eight of the estimated 300 islands are inhabitable. I was warned that there could be shortage of tap water and that you’d find a sea snake before you’d find Internet. That was all the background knowledge I had on Palau.
We landed late at night in pitch-black darkness, so we couldn’t see what the island looked like from the air. The next morning, I met up with two of my mentors, National Geographic Explorers Zoltan Takacs and Kenny Broad. Zoltan is one of the world's bravest scientists. He specializes in chasing and researching highly venomous snakes in order to develop novel medicines. Kenny is known for diving into underwater caves around the world to learn about the past in order to predict future environmental occurrences. Both men are pilots and world travelers and we speak the same language: exploration. I’m good at what I do in the air, but these guys were taking me into a realm I had never experienced before! This is what exploration is about and what Math and Science can allow you to do.
The expedition started when we all got into a boat and started to track down sea snakes. I saw many islands that looked like green mushroom tops with caves on some of their sides. I’m not sure what exactly the name Palau means, but to me it means “majestic beauty.” I had never seen such clear water in the ocean before! I felt as if someone took filters off my eyes, and I could see through the water like a bird diving for fish. I’ve been to some beautiful beaches in my travels, but the water here was clearer than the most luxurious of swimming pools. Looks were deceiving, however, as the sea was filled with many types of venomous wildlife.
Where from: Hungary
Profession: Pharmacologist, biomedical scientist
Cool Facts: His love for snakes began at the age of four; bitten six times by venomous snakes and spat on by a spitting cobra; highly allergic to snake venom and antivenom; has traveled to 143 countries!
Mission: Catch a Sea Snake
The real reason the Flying Classroom team was in Palau was not for the beauty but to learn how venom from snakes and an assortment of other animal creatures can save lives. That doesn’t sound like it makes sense, but, yes, the deadliest substance on earth can be a top lifesaver! Venom is currently being used to treat diabetes, heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, and high blood pressure, and it can alleviate pain associated with cancer and HIV.
As I begin to work with Zoltan to find sea snakes on land and in the Pacific Ocean, I learned that they are highly elusive. These creatures spend half of their time in the ocean to eat and mate. The remaining time is spent on land to digest food, lay eggs, and shed their skins. In case you’re wondering what they eat, I was shocked to learn they can swallow an entire eel in one piece! An eel is thicker and wider than a sea snake. They are also resilient and have sharp teeth, which may explain why sea snake venom is so powerful. Scientists have seen evidence of an evolutionary arms race between the sea snake and the eel. The eel is becoming more resistant to the venom of the sea snake, but in turn, the sea snake venom is getting even stronger.
Puzzled by how a sea snake could eat an eel, I asked Zoltan how they do it. Zoltan explained that the bones surrounding the snake’s mouth are not firmly attached to each other like in humans, but instead are connected by ligaments that act like a rubber band between the bones in the mouth. Further down, the snake’s ribs are not connected in the belly, so its entire body can easily expand!
Check out this rare video of a snake eating using its venom to eat an eel. Zoltan was able to get his hands on this extremely rare footage!
I asked Zoltan the big question as he equipped me with all the necessary safety gear: “If I get bitten, how much time do I have?”
Zoltan replied, “About 6 hours!”
The Flying Classroom is a fast aircraft, but I would not make it to Tokyo or Australia in that time to receive antivenom medication. The venom attacks your nervous and muscular systems. Once paralyzed by the venom, your life can only be maintained by a mechanical ventilator or assisted breathing by a hand pump. Your body shuts down. There is not a single movement you can willingly make.
Zoltan, who has been repeatedly exposed to snake venom, once experienced an even more dangerous allergic reaction to both the venom and antivenom. An allergic reaction to the antivenom can kill someone in minutes, which happened to two of his friends. Zoltan has had seven venom encounters. Of course, safety was the top priority on our expedition. The fear of being bitten made me respect the creature even more.
When my turn came to catch one, it was in the water, which is harder than catching one on land. Zoltan saw one swimming by our boat and made me jump in the water to go after it. With my lack of experience, it seemed impossible at first. But after numerous attempts, I caught my first snake! Once I caught it, I could immediately feel the snake’s muscles from neck to tail curling in order to escape. It was difficult to control, given the thick safety gloves I wore for protection. I could hear the increased rate of my breathing through my dive mask. Kenny told me to slow down and that I was doing well.
Tracking sea snakes was just the beginning of this expedition. What makes Zoltan special is that he not only catches snakes from the field but also does the actual research to turn venom into treatments for different diseases. Most lab researchers don’t actually catch the creature that is the source of the venom. Zoltan covers the full process. I have serious respect for this scientist!
Exhausted after a hard day’s work of catching snakes, I had to prepare myself for Day 2’s mission: collecting blood and venom.
Special thanks to the Force-E Dive Shop in Miami.