Within five minutes of arriving on Amedee, I see not one, but four snakes on the beach. I’m pretty sure this number can’t be ideal. But the crew of the Mary D Seven, which has sailed us across the biggest lagoon on earth to the Amedee lighthouse, don’t seem particularly distressed about it. It’s not long until a crowd has gathered around the scaly inhabitants of this sickeningly photogenic paradise isle.
I assume that the tricots rayés, as the snakes are locally known, don’t play too big a part in the island’s marketing material, but its actually quite the opposite. They’ve become something of a national emblem. The shop in the airport has the tricot rayé on pretty much everything, from baby’s bibs and children’s books to rugby shirts and washbags.
They’re semi-aquatic, coming onto land to mate and digest food, and they’re also venomous. Potently so. However, crew member David seems entirely relaxed about them. “You would have to pretty much put your finger in its mouth for it to bite you,” he says. “I’ve woken up with one in my sleeping bag before. It really has to feel threatened to bite.”
Amedee is a small islet to the south of New Caledonia’s capital, Noumea. The island’s lighthouse historically played a key role in pointing out the Boulari passage, one of the few gaps in the 930-mile-long barrier reef that surrounds New Caledonia’s main island, Grande Terre. The 184ft tower was made in France, then dismantled and sent to the Pacific like some sort of gigantic, prototype IKEA best-seller.
The lighthouse wasn’t entirely successful, as the massive shipwrecks on the horizon attest, but nowadays it acts as an impressive decorative bauble for sun-loving day-trippers to photograph. The island has a long, sandy beach dotted with deck chairs, and holiday staples such as traditional dancers, coconut huskers and sarong sellers. But you don’t come to the other side of the earth, to the world’s biggest lagoon, in order to sit on the sand.
The Mary D Seven’s glass-bottomed sidekick heads out over the coral, spangled emperor fish, surgeon fish and New Cal’s own take on Nemo swimming beneath it. The clownfish here aren’t quite the same species; they’re bigger, and have a light blue stripe down the side of their face. They also get up to antics that Disney wisely decided not to cover. “A group of clownfish will have one female, and the rest are males. But if the female dies, one of the males will become female,” David says.
Clownfish aside, the most remarkable inhabitant is the shark-esque remora. It has what looks like a massive footprint on its head, which acts as a sucker. It attaches itself to turtles and sharks, feeding on their leftovers while lazily hitching a ride. But with our boat in the water, there’s something even bigger than a shark to cling onto, and they sucker themselves to the hull — somewhat blocking the view.
Once back on the islet, it’s time to explore the water on the other side of the pier, which is initially disappointing. There isn’t quite as much variety over here — less coral, more sea grass — but then suddenly, silently, a turtle emerges next to me. I swim alongside it for five minutes, without a care in the world and disturbed only by a pilot fish hoping for food scraps. The snakes are welcome to the land — the real magic is in the water.