The sea snake hunters of Kudaka

Duncan Parker: Camera assistant

Japan is one of those places that is surrounded by mystery and wonder. It conjures up images of imperial empires, ancient rituals and martial arts. It is made up of a staggering 6,852 islands, with climates ranging from tropical forest in the south to cold temperate mountains in the north. The first time I headed to Japan was to film a species of wild boar on the remote island of Iriomote, which lies almost the furthest point south on the island chain.

The entire island had a strange feeling around it, almost like you were being watched.

On this trip I was with producer David Marks and cameraman Robin Cox to film sea snake hunting, an ancient ritual passed down through generations and carried out by the islands elders.

After a few internal flights and a ferry ride we arrived on Kudaka island, known locally as the ‘Island of God’. Our fixer Mai had told us that this island was highly sacred and that we must not take any object away with us when we leave. The island’s post office often received stones and other objects sent by tourists who had taken them from the island and had fell under some illness or curse once they had returned home.

The entire island had a strange feeling around it, almost like you were being watched. Several long dirt roads where forbidden to tourists and even entire areas of the island where only used by the highest priestess for the most important ceremonies.

After meeting 72-year old Setsuko and Yoko I looked forward to seeing how they would go about catching one of the world’s most venomous snakes. Sea snakes are supposedly very docile and have very small mouths so can only bite you between your hands and feet. However if you do get bitten and they inject their venom you are dead in 20 minutes! David made sure we had all the necessary precautions, including wearing rubber gloves and thick wellington boots, which made our hunters chuckle.

if you do get bitten and they inject their venom you are dead in 20 minutes!

Setsuko showed us the sacred smoke house where the snakes would be prepared, dried and smoked for the offerings. This short terracotta tiled house had a small door, and wooden shutters on its windows. Inside, drying racks surrounded a central fireplace and its walls were incrusted in a think black tar, left over from the decades of snake smoking.

Setsuko and Yoko had a few favourite hunting spots in small caves and coves across the island. A few hours before dusk Robin and I rigged up several infrared lights to illuminate the hunting so we could film inside the caves.

As it grew dark and the moonlight fell through the holes in the cave roof the snakes began to appear in the shallows. With only their dim touch lights and bare hands the two old ladies started lifting the snakes from the water. It was an incredible thing to see and something I will never forget. Many more nights followed until they had caught enough snakes to give offering to all their God’s. We all left Kudaka feeling privileged to have seen this ancient ritual.

The sea from Kudaka Island
The smoke house, left.