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Meet The Snorkeling Grandmothers Who Are Chasing Deadly Sea Snakes

Armed with cameras and a bit of courage, this group of snorkelling grandmothers are helping to track a population of lethal sea snakes in waters off New Caledonia.

Since coming together two years ago, the group of women -- who call themselves The Fantastic Grandmothers -- have provided researchers with an entirely new understanding of what lurks beneath one of Noumea's most popular swimming spots.

Baie des Citrons is frequented by locals every day and is a go-to spot for thousands of cruise ship passengers which pull into Noumea's ports each year.

The group of seven women, who snorkel recreationally, gradually came together for a riskier purpose. Image: Claire Goiran

Scientists Dr Claire Goiran, from the University of New Caledonia, and Professor Rick Shine, from Australia's Macquarie University, have been working in the area's waters for the past 15 years.

The pair were primarily focused on documenting the presence of a small, harmless species known as the turtle-headed sea snake.

During the first eight years of their study, the researchers also glimpsed another species -- the 1.5 metre long, venomous greater sea snake -- only six times.

It was enough to draw their attention and in 2013, the pair began dedicating time to seeking out this much larger and more dangerous snake. However, it has remained elusive.

Image: Claire Goiran

It was only by happy accident that Dr Goiran stumbled across a group of enthusiastic grandmothers, all aged in their 60s and 70s, who were willing to lend their time and eyes to the project.

"Well, I found them on the beach," Dr Goiran told 10 daily with a chuckle.

"It was not planned ahead, it was just by chance that those wonderful women came and helped me with my research."

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The women, who are all expert snorkelers and swimmers, head out every day to photograph the sea snakes they come across. Due to the distinctive markings on greater sea snakes, individual reptiles can be easily identified from photographs.

A greater sea snake Hydrophis major in the Baie des Citrons, New Caledonia. Image: Claire Goiran

In a paper published in Ecosphere, Dr Goiran and Prof Shine revealed it is now understood more than 249 greater sea snakes live in Baie des Citrons.

Professor Shine described the number as "astonishing".

“As soon as the grandmothers set to work, we realised that we had massively underestimated the abundance of greater sea snakes in the bay," Dr Goiran said.

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It's citizen science at its most extreme.

Social media and an increasing interest in environmental issues has seen the involvement of the general public in wildlife research projects grow in recent years.

These people provide invaluable, free assistance to scientists who may otherwise not have the funding to pay for it, but projects are usually limited to harmless forms of wildlife, the paper's authors said.

A project on highly venomous sea snakes undertaken by a group of grandmothers is, suffice to say, less common.

“Fantastic Grandmother' Monique Mazière photographing sea snake number 79, nicknamed Déborah. Image: Claire Goiran

While getting up close and personal with these reptiles doesn't sound like a task for the faint of heart, Dr Goiran said the grandmas have the perfect amount of nerve for the job.

"At the beginning, they were nervous, which is good," she said.

"This is the very good thing about working with grandmothers because they won't take risks compared with young men, for example. They're very responsible, and were a little bit afraid of snakes at the beginning."

Two of the grandmothers dive around a greater sea snake Hydrophis major, photographing the snake's tail for identification. Image: Claire Goiran

It is not in the nature of sea snakes, which Dr Goiran described as "gentle", to attack humans unprovoked.

Despite a large number of greater sea snakes now identified in Baie des Citrons, no bites by the species have ever been recorded in the area.

A trawler fisherman who died off the Northern Territory coast in 2018 is believed to be the first person killed by a sea snake bite in Australia in more than 80 years.

The researchers hope projects like that undertaken by The Fantastic Grandmothers will ease concerns of swimmers who may encounter sea snakes in the wild.

"Those snakes are big venomous predators, so they don't have many predators themselves, so they aren't scared by other animals or humans swimming around," Dr Goiran said.

"If an animal thinks it's being attacked, it will bite. So those snakes don't think you're going to bite them because nobody bites them."

"When people know the sea snakes are there, they are part of the ecosystem and they are not dangerous, they will be willing to protect them."