We can now add diamondback rattlesnakes to the list of rare animals to fear while swimming in the ocean, thanks to a new viral video from Hilton Head Island.
Jonathan Wiles said the snake, identified by South Carolina Department of Natural Resources as an eastern diamondback rattlesnake, “just rolled out of a wave" last Tuesday morning while he and his wife Lindsay were walking on Port Royal Plantation beach on Hilton Head Island.
“Literally, the wave just deposited him,” he said on Facebook.
Jonathan and Lindsay both took photos and videos of the snake and posted them to Facebook. As of Tuesday morning, the posts were shared more than 18,000 times.
Jonathan said the “poor snake” was as confused as they were as it made its way through the sand. The couple stuck around to warn joggers and walkers not to step on the snake before security arrived. The couple visits Hilton Head twice a year and said they’ve never seen anything like that before.
“A rattlesnake is probably one of the last things I would expect to wash up onto shore in front of me,” he said.
SCDNR herpetologist Will Dillman confirmed that the photos “absolutely” show an eastern diamondback.
How rare are eastern diamondbacks in the Lowcountry?
The species — America’s largest venomous snake — can reach up to 8 feet in length, according to the SCDNR. It’s one of six species of venomous snakes in South Carolina.
Like many other snake species, the rattlers are most active in the summer and early fall. Breeding typically occurs in August and September, according to SCDNR.
But Dillman says coming across a diamondback — even in the midst of their most active season — is exceedingly rare.
“It’s a very unusual experience for someone to actually see a diamondback,” he said. “It’s really lucky.”
Even though the snakes are known to thrive on the Lowcountry’s coastal islands, Dillman says it’s still “a little unusual” to see one on a beach.
“Usually you aren’t going to see them right on the beach like that, but they do occur,” he said. “It’s very possible this snake was doing some normal swimming and got caught in a harsh tide and ended up where it didn’t intend to be.”
While the snakes typically prefer dry land, experts say they are occasionally spotted near swamps, along beaches and even miles out at sea.
“(Eastern diamondbacks) generally avoid wet areas but sometimes live along the edges of swamps,” the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory says. “They are accomplished swimmers and even travel through saltwater to and from barrier islands.”
What was the snake doing in the ocean?
Why do they swim from island to island? And how do they know where they’re going?
According to Dillman, eastern diamondbacks are a “very spatially aware” species.
“They know where they are in the landscape,” he said. “It may be moving from one area of resources to another, or it may be displaced for some reason.”
Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are along the coast from Louisiana to North Carolina, according to the Savannah River Ecology Lab.
But Dillman says the species is rapidly declining.
“It’s a very, very rare snake in South Carolina,” Dillman said. “They’re known to be found all the way up the coast through North Carolina, but now it’s virtually extinct north of the Santee River.”
Dillman says SCDNR is interested in sightings of the species. If you spot an eastern diamondback, report it to SCDNR or contact Dillman directly at email@example.com.
Wiles said he wasn’t sure what happened to the rattlesnake after security arrived.
But according to another Facebook post, someone killed it on Tuesday.
What to do if you encounter a snake
Dillman says killing the species is not against the law, but he wouldn’t recommend it.
“There’s a lot of misconception about snakes,” he said. “They pose very, very limited risks to most people unless people interact with them. Trying to move them, poking them to see what they’ll do or when they try to kill them is when things go wrong.”
Most of the time you’re better off just letting the snakes be, he said.
While a rattlesnake can be intimidating, they’re also useful to have around because they help control the rodent population, according to SCDNR.
If you are feeling threatened by a venomous snake on your property, SCDNR says you can contact a wildlife removal specialist — the same guys you’d call to remove a nuisance alligator.
Keeping your yard maintained and removing all debris that snakes could use as refuge should also help keep them off your property, SCDNR says.