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Meet the snorkeling grandmas who swim with deadly sea snakes

These gallant grandmothers don't mind getting close to reptiles that are probably bigger than most of their grandkids.

Two Fantastic Grandmothers dive around a greater sea snake, photographing its tail for identification. 
Claire Goiran

If you've ever assumed grandmas and deadly sea snakes don't go together, take your tightly coiled views of serpent-senior dynamics and slither on over here.  

A group of bold recreational snorkelers who call themselves the Fantastic Grandmothers is helping scientists better grasp the sea snake population in New Caledonia. And no, they ain't afraid of no venom. 

The seven snorkelers, all in their sixties and seventies, put on their dive masks and fins to assist two researchers who've been monitoring snakes in Baie des citrons, a popular swimming area off the capital city of Noumea, for 15 years.  

While tracking a small, harmless species known as the turtle-headed sea snake, marine biologists Claire Goiran of the University of New Caledonia and Rick Shine from Australia's Macquarie University caught a few glimpses of another species -- the fast-swimming, 4.9-foot (1.5-meter) venomous greater sea snake (Hydrophis major). They wanted to further explore its presence, but saw it only 10 times over 36 months.

That's where the snorkeling grannies come in. They approached the scientists and proposed a hands-on (senior) citizen science project. For the past couple of years, they've headed underwater with cameras to photograph snakes, including the potentially lethal ones, in the shallow, biodiverse bay around Noumea. Pictures taken by them (and one by Goiran) identified more than 140 greater sea snakes in the bay over a 25‐month period.

The greater sea snakes are long, venomous and photogenic. 

Claire Goiran

The giant snakes have easily recognizable marks on their hind bodies, and with more photos to examine thanks to the snap-happy grandmas, the scientists had a much larger, more reliable sample to work with.  

"The results were astonishing. As soon as the grandmothers set to work, we realized that we had massively underestimated the abundance of greater sea snakes in the bay," reads a study on the project that just appeared in the journal Ecosphere.  

The shots also revealed crucial new information about the snakes' breeding patterns, like when they typically court, get pregnant and give birth. 

"I have been studying sea snakes in the Baie des Citrons for 20 years, and thought I understood them very well -- but the Fantastic Grandmothers have shown me just how wrong I was," Goiran said of the gallant grannies, who include Geneviève Briançon, Aline Guémas, Sylvie Hebert, Cathy Le Bouteiller, Monique Mazière, Marilyn Sarocchi, and Monique Zannier 

The volunteers don't try to touch or capture snakes, just take photos. And fortunately, according to the study, greater sea snakes don't exhibit defensive responses when divers get up close. No Hydrophis major bites to humans have been recorded at Baie des citrons, and if one of the snakes did bite a Fantastic Grandmother, "there is a good hospital in Noumea with emergency doctors ready to take care of this kind of case," Goiran said. Typically, sea snakes don't inject people with venom, she added. 

Still, I got to give these amphibious snake charmers a huge high-fin. Those snakes are just a few inches shorter than me and I don't think I'd get near one in a full-body, multi-layer snake-proof suit. 

The Fantastic Grandmothers… any one else think we're looking at our next superhero movie?