Seeing a moray eel while snorkeling or diving can be a very exciting experience. With rows of sharp, dangerous teeth, a snake-like body with an elusive lifestyle, the sometimes shy moray eels are one of the coral reefs most effective predators. As menacing as they appear, moray eels are not considered aggressive, but have been known to defend their lairs, or quickly biting any perceived danger.
The common Hawaiian name for some moray eels is puhi, but there are many additional names for different types of moray eels. Some were thought to be aumākua, or family guardian, according to Maui Ocean Center’s Hawaiian Cultural Advisor, Kahu Dane Maxwell. Moray eels were also thought to be the kino lau (many forms taken by a supernatural body) of one of the four major gods, Ku. According to Kahu Dane, several species of eels were eaten by Hawaiians, especially puhi uha, the Hawaiian mustache conger.
The moray is one of 15 families of true eels found in the coral reefs surrounding these islands. Two likely reasons for Hawaii’s numerous moray species are their long larval stage, and the apparent lack of competition from other fish predators. A long larval stage, which is three months to more than a year according to research, means larvae can survive drifting in the open ocean from the Indo-Pacific region. In other locations with fewer species of morays there are more competitors, such as groupers and snappers.
With a ribbon-like body, moray eels are perfectly adapted to living within the coral reef ecosystem, generally completely hidden within the reef but most often seen with just the head visible. Some physical adaptations to their reef dwelling lifestyle includes lack of scales, pelvic fins, and pectoral fins, which could become damaged while traveling throughout the reefs. They also have small gill openings that protect their delicate gills. Most species have large mouths to assist in capturing prey.
Moray eels can be divided up into two groups; those with very sharp, long teeth and those with blunt, molariform teeth. The sharp teeth eels prefer reef fish, octopus, and occasionally crustaceans while the blunt toothed animals, like the snowflake and zebra morays, feed primarily on crustaceans, especially crabs. Research shows the whitemargin moray may have a venomous bite and the yellowmouth moray secretes a skin toxin.
Recent research shows many eels are hermaphroditic, starting their mature life as males, changing sex later to females, but a few are synchronous hermaphrodites (female and male at the same time).
Eels are not generally dangerous unless provoked, or feel threatened. Most reported eel bites are a result of a diver sticking a hand into a crevice in search of octopus or lobster, or attempting to feed an eel. On your next snorkel or dive, keep a keen eye for these shy eels or any of their neighbors in the reef. As always, keep the wildlife wild by not feeding, which keeps them and us safe.
*Due to the constant rotation of animals back to the ocean, the presence of any specific animal cannot be guaranteed.