During the day fishes swim and forage, their bright colors and behavior admired by snorkelers and divers. As twilight approaches night critters emerge from their burrows and coral polyps open their delicate tentacles to feed on plankton. The reef comes alive at night. This is the domain of the moray eel slithering down a lava rock ledge to disappear in a dark cave.
Long feared and respected, moray eels evoke visions of serpents waiting to pounce on unsuspecting humans. In ancient Rome, the emperor Nero was said to punish disobedient servants by throwing them into pits of hungry eels. In modern times, Mike Nelson of the 1960’s series “Sea Hunt” had frequent encounters with eels and fought them off with his trusty dive knife. Movies like “The Deep”, portray the moray eel as a creature to be feared. Yet contrary to these images, eels are not vicious man eaters, but fascinating reef fish with an odd appearance.
Moray eels, or puhi in Hawaiian, are very abundant in island waters. Represented by 40 species in the family Muraenidae, they are quite diverse in size, appearance and habits. The Giant Moray can reach a length of 10 ft. and weigh 75 lbs. Imagine coming face to face with this creature, the vision appearing 25% larger due to refraction from a mask!
Lacking scales and protruding fins, it is easy to think of Moray Eels as separate category, but they are truly bony fishes. The dorsal, caudal and anal fins are fused, and instead of scales, nature has provided them with a layer of mucus which protects the skin from germs and parasites. Perfectly adapted for the Hawaiian reef, the moray are efficient hunters. They have poor eyesight but a keen sense of smell. They hunt at night, locating resting prey such as damsel fish or cardinal fish. One inhabitant of the reef that outsmarts the moray is the parrot fish, which sleeps in a gelatinous cocoon that hides its smell.
During the day, moray eels can be seen poking their heads out of the reef, opening and closing their mouths, their rows of backward teeth looking menacing. This is not a sign of hunger or aggression, but the way these creatures breathe, pumping water over gills which are located behind the jaw. The configuration of the teeth ensure that a slippery fish will have a one-way journey to the stomach! Some of the moray, such as the Snowflake or Zebra eels, don’t have teeth but grinding plates for crushing crabs, urchins and other invertebrates. Like most predators with big appetites, this family of marine life, will “luau” and then rest for a few days.
It is best not to stick your hands into holes and crevices while snorkeling and diving. An eel will defend it’s territory and can inflict painful bites. Some Dive masters feed eels making them “tame”, but since the eel’s eyesight is poor, this is unwise. The animals cannot discern fingers from squid! As always on Kaua’i Sea Riders Snorkel Eco-Tour we educate passengers that it is better to observe reef animals in the wild, instead of changing their behavior.
Popular in Europe, Japan and China as a culinary delight, moray eels are raised for food. Thousands of tons are harvested each year to the delight of the fishing industry.
With your new understanding of these curious animals, you will be able to exclaim to your dive buddy, “That’s a Moray!” without fear.
The Italian accent is optional.