The highest concentration of one of the most venomous snakes in the world is located about 90 miles off the coast of Santos, Brazil, on a small, craggy chunk of otherwise uninhabitable land. It’s known as Ilha da Queimada Grande, or Snake Island, and it’s the only place you will find 2,000 or so of the wholly unique golden lancehead viper, or Bothrops insularis.
When you step ashore, with a keen eye you spot one of these snakes roughly every 10 to 15 minutes after clearing the base of the island, and as many as one every six square yards in other parts of the island. This means, as you are walking through the waist-high brush, even with some good boots on, it’s like walking through a minefield that moves and, instead of blowing you into chunks, slowly paralyzes you and liquefies your insides, as the golden lancehead does to the migrating birds it feeds on in the treetops.
Well, “liquefying your insides” may be a stretch, but no one knows for sure because no one bitten has lived long enough even to be admitted to a hospital, or at least none of the researchers who accompanied VICE on their journey to Snake Island owned up to that fact. Nor did the Brazilian Navy, who allowed VICE exclusive access to document their annual maintenance inspection of Snake Island’s lighthouse—which has been automated ever since the 1920s, after the old lighthouse keeper ran out of food and disappeared while picking wild bananas in a small grove near the shore. According to legend, he and the members of his rescue party died one by one, all alone and in search of one another after each had been missing for some time.
The golden lancehead is so unique and its venom so potent that specimens procured by snake-smuggling “biopirates” can fetch up to $30,000 apiece on the black market (with prices going much higher depending on the location of the rich weirdo snake collector or, some have speculated, the black-market biopharmaceutical chemists attempting to beat Brazil on a patent).
Is that the craziest fucking description of a documentary you’ve ever heard? The answer is yes. So of course VICE’s editor-in-chief, Rocco Castoro, and senior producer, Jackson Fager, had to go there and nose around for themselves. On their return they said things like:
“It was like a David Lynch movie through the prism of Satan’s asshole. The anti-Galápagos. Darwin in reverse."
"[It's] cut off from the mainland and perhaps the land of a long-buried pirate treasure, according to the stories from local fishermen. But they also told us there were aliens on the island, so pretty much anything goes. It’s scorched earth. It's where I would send my worst enemies to live, and I look forward to setting up a business with the Brazilian government to do just that. After the World Cup, of course."
“What I can tell you is that there are stone fucking steps hand-carved into the face of one of the prominent cliffs, all the way up. But you can’t dock anywhere near there. There’s also the possibility that [the venom] could be used for an anti-cancer drug, or perhaps anti-aging. Maybe it could save mankind. Whatever. They wouldn't have saved my ass."
"There are blue locusts and so many of these weird, prehistoric-looking cockroaches on the ground at night that it crunches when you walk. Place is fucked. No one is allowed there for a reason. Don't ever go."
"All that said, great shoot. Great diving, too."