Of all the things to consider when taking a trip out to the middle of a lake, an encounter with a venomous snake might not be something you'd expect to have to think about. But Cory Routh had just such an experience with an intrepid cottonmouth. Fortunately, he had a GoPro on hand.

Routh's run-in (swim-in?) with the snake took place in Back Bay, Virginia – half a mile away from the nearest shore!

While out testing the water for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Routh noticed the snake heading towards his boat, but he doesn't think the reptile had any harmful intent. "More than likely, the snake saw our boat as a place to get out of the water," he told 13News Now.

Spotting an opportunity for some impromptu nature-documenting, Routh put his GoPro on the end of an 8-foot pole and filmed the snake as the boat backed away from it. When the reptile noticed its audience (and perhaps the dangling camera), it realised it had caught the attention of some big scary humans, and flashed the stark white interior of its mouth – a threat display that has earned this species its common name.

Finding a cottonmouth out on a lake is not nearly as unusual as it may seem, according to Dr David Steen of Auburn University. "Cottonmouths are highly aquatic and spend most of their time in water," he told me in an email. "This is where they find the majority of their prey, including fish, amphibians and even other snakes."

Cottonmouths aren't just limited to freshwater, either: their search for tasty critters sometimes takes them out into brackish and estuarine habitats, too.

Given how comfortable they are in the water, messing with one of these snakes – even out in the middle of a lake – is a bad idea. Still, a cottonmouth will run through a list of threatening tactics before it resorts to biting. In addition to flashing their white mouths, the animals also shake their tails rapidly to make a warning noise (this is common in many snakes, even the ones without rattles), and emit a nasty-smelling musk.

If a cottonmouth doesn't think you're getting the message to leave it alone, it may very well resort to biting, and like its sister species, the copperhead, this is a dangerously venomous snake. But avoiding a trip to the hospital is simpler than you might think.

"Many if not most snake bites happen when people try to mess with the serpents," Steen cautioned. "Don't do that and your chance of a snake bite falls to virtually zero."



Top header image: Jake/Flickr