Last night, the Seahorse Key Marine Ecology campers went searching for the legendary Seahorse Key Cottonmouth Water Moccasins.
We were lead by Dr. Coleman Sheehy, a biologist who has studied these snakes for years and has an infectious enthusiasm for them.
This year's walk was different from past camps, because the snakes have fallen on hard times. Since the nesting seabird colonies suddenly abandoned the island in April of 2015, the snakes have lost a major food source.
Not the birds, the snakes don't eat them.
They eat the fish that the seabirds drop from their perches.
The presence of the moccasins ... LOTS of them, keep predators away from the nesting colonies.
This mutualistic relationship between bird and snake has gone on for decades, but at least for now it is over.
The snakes are starving... hungry to the point of cannibalism.
More birds are nesting over at Snake Key 2 miles away, but Seahorse still remains vacant a year after the mysterious abandonment.
With the kids properly sloshed with DEET and armed with flashlights we set out on the dark starlit beach. It wasn't long before a kid spotted our first snake.
(It was hard to see through the INSANE CLOUDS OF MOSQUITOES), but we all got a good look, took some pics, and then moved on.
A beautiful distant lightning show was happening out over the Gulf as we walked. It was incredible, even if I only captured a partial view in the phone pic above.
In the first 8 minutes of our walk, we spotted 4 moccasins on the beach. They are basically beachcombing, using their strong sense of smell to locate dead fish or other edibles along the shore.
All of them were skinny, not the typically thick bodied Seahorse Key cottonmouths of years past.
We cut the walk short due to our rapid success in snake spotting AND the vast hordes of mosquitoes that ignored our bug spray defenses.
The dark walk back to the lab was lit by stars and that incredible lightning show reflecting off the calm Gulf waters.
These kids, from Ohio, Arkansas, and New York are going to have GREAT stories to tell when they get home.
And ... isn't that what it's all about?