British man killed by sea snake while working on trawler in Australia

A 23-year-old British backpacker died after being bitten by a sea snake while working on a fishing trawler near a remote island off northern Australia.

In a rare accident that marked the first known death from a sea snake in Australia, the man was bitten as he hauled up a net on a boat near Groote Eyland, a large island off the coast of the Northern Territory.

Authorities said ships and a rescue helicopter rushed to the trawler to provide medical supplies but were unable to assist.

“They went out to the trawler but unfortunately by the time they got out there he had passed away,” said Craig Garraway, from St John Ambulance.

Northern Territory police said they had notified the British High Commission. The man’s identity has not yet been revealed.

“Police will continue with their inquiries and a post mortem will be conducted,” a police spokeswoman said. 

An antivenom exists for sea snake bites, but it is not known whether any was on board the trawler.

Australia has 21 of the world’s 25 most lethal snakes, including the entire top ten, according to a study in 1979.

But the Marine Education Society of Australia said no deaths have previously been recorded from sea snake bites in Australian waters. It said about 32 of the 60 known species of sea snake are in Australia. 

The creatures are typically found in tropical waters, but can also exist in swamps and some rivers. All known species are venomous but most are not aggressive. 

The society said bites typically occur on trawlers and are not particularly painful. The bite often goes unnoticed but is followed 30 minutes later by stiffness, muscle aches, possible jaw spasms and then pain in the affected area. This is followed by blurred vision, drowsiness and respiratory paralysis.

“Most sea snake bites occur on trawlers, when the snakes are sometimes hauled in with the catch,” the society said on its website. “Only a small proportion of bites are fatal to humans as it is rare for much venom to be injected.”

Earlier this year, Peter Davis, an Australian fisherman in the Northern Territory was bitten by a sea snake that was snagged on his line. He felt the bite but only went to hospital several days later when his hand started throbbing.

He was kept on a drip for two days but avoided having his finger amputated because the bite did not release venom and caused only an infection.

"(It) left a big hole in my finger,” he told ABC News.

Police said the British man was bitten shortly after midday on Thursday, about 70 nautical miles south of Groote Eylandt. He was declared dead after the boat arrived at the mainland.

Groote Eyland, in the Gulf of Carpentaria is Australia’s fourth largest island and was named by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman. Its waters, which have large numbers of marlin, reef fish and barramundi, are regarded as one of the country’s top fishing spots and are popular with both commercial and recreational fishermen. 

In 2013, twenty-year-old British man Ryan Donoghue was electrocuted on a prawn trawler in the Gulf of Carpentaria. A coroner found that the “shameful” accident occurred due to unsafe work practices aboard the boat.

“The death of Ryan Donoghue was needless and a tragic waste of young life," said coroner Greg Cavenagh in 2016.

"It would have been prevented if there was even a modicum of compliance with the law.”

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