Biggest & Baddest Field Journals: Giant Anacondas

It’s said that living inside Amazonian swamps and murky waterways are snakes as big as dragons. Some claim they’re more than 60 feet in length. But how real are these stories? The longest anacondas on record are no more than 25 feet in length, but veteran jungle explorers insist they’ve seen bigger. Join biologist Niall McCann as he heads to Venezuela to pursue these giant legends and to find and measure what could be the biggest snake in the world. Here’s an excerpt from Niall’s field journal from his expedition to find the Biggest & Baddest Giant Anacondas.

I’d forgotten how terrifying it is, staring at a huge anaconda and anticipating trying to catch it. I feel that deep sense of fear in the pit of my stomach. I look across at Juan Carlos and Arturo who are going to help me with the capture, and know that they are feeling it too. In addition to the visceral fear, I have the sensible part of my brain telling me that I don’t need to do this, the risks are too great, why don’t I just turn and walk away?

The anaconda looks huge, I estimate it to be about 5 metres long, well over 16 feet in length, but it’s their girth that makes snakes like this so intimidating. It is so massive and so obviously powerful, powerful enough to crush the life out of me if I make one false move. This would be intimidating under any circumstances, but in this case it is worse: the anaconda is perched on an awkward rise next to the river and it could easily pull me into the water unless I’m very careful. It is also guarded by thick thorny scrub, just getting to it is going to be difficult, let alone catching it.

Our Yekuana Indian guides are tripping over each other to be the furthest away from the snake. While the camera crew carefully position themselves, the Yekuana crowd at the far end of the boats, nervously chatting to each other. They live with the reality of these snakes as a daily danger, and none of them have ever been this close to one on purpose. They had told me that there were lots of big snakes here on the Caura River in southern Venezuela, and they weren’t wrong!

Our time looking for anacondas in the wetlands of Los Llanos was great practice, I’d caught several and had re-familiarised myself with how they move, how they feel, how they respond to my presence. But none of those snakes, large though they were, were anywhere near as large as this one; none of them would have looked at me as a legitimate food source. This snake is different.

I decide to crawl through the thorns and approach the anaconda from behind, giving me access to its head without coming straight at it, directly in its line of sight. To capture a huge snake with your bare hands you need to get a very firm grip of it just behind the head, then hold on for dear life when it starts to fight, and fight it will! I’ve done this many times before, but it’s scary every time. Fear is good though, fear means I’m ready, fear means I’m alert, fear means I respect the situation and am less likely to make a mistake.

With Juan Carlos and Arturo just behind me, I climb up the bank and poke my head up to get my first look at the enormous snake up close. It sees me at the same time as I see it. It raises its head then makes two rapid movements, the first one towards me – and I pause, ready to dive out the way if it strikes at me; then away from me, towards the edge of the river bank. For a moment it stops, as if assessing its options. This is my one chance, the next time it moves it’ll be gone, over the bank, down into the river and away. But now its head is out of reach, the only way I can get to it is by diving forward, off my feet. What choice do I have? Now it’s up to me: speed, strength and confidence. Go!

 Don’t miss the series premiere of Biggest & Baddest: Giant Anacondas this Friday at 8/7c on Nat Geo WILD!