Natural History

“Can’t Get No Respect”

greenmorayverticalOften feared, the humble eel is actually fascinating to study.

Story by Suzanne Gerber ~ Photos by Barbara Shively

Pity the poor eel. It never makes anyone’s Top 10 list of Favorite Fish. In fact, for many underwater visitors, the mere pronunciation of its name inspires profound fright, often bordering on terror, or, at best, disgust. And an actual sighting of one of their serpentlike heads, teeth flashing in an ominous opening-closing motion, can be enough to propel an uninitiated swimmer or snorkeler straight out of the water.

Yet despite appearances, eels are rarely harmful — unless provoked, of course. The opening and closing of that fearsome mouth is merely an eel breathing, never meant to hurt or frighten. And those beady eyes that seem to follow your every move are just how God constructed the humble eel. As with snakes, if we can get past our own unconscious fears or squeamishness and come to appreciate the striking beauty of this creature — and learn a little about its behavior — we might just become impressed enough to start actually seeking out eels next time we are underwater.

Keepin’ it eel

Eels make their home in every ocean. While the Green Moray is the most common, there are actually 19 different families of eels and more than 600 unique species around the world, the majority in the wider Pacific. Only one family lives in the fresh water of rivers, lakes and streams. The western Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea are home to some 15 species of morays, though divers and snorkelers seldom encounter more than 7.

During the day, morays usually hang out in crevices and holes in rock and reef. This habitat both protects them from predators and gives them the advantage of being able to attack prey from a hidden position. Most people see eels in this position, but one of the most exciting things you will ever see is an eel swimming in the open, foraging for dinner. If it happens to be an eight-foot giant Green Moray, as my dive buddy and I saw in Bonaire once, your heart will race — hopefully with excitement, not fear.

Eels have a unique method of swimming, called anguilliform, in which they flex their whole body into lateral waves. The lateral compression of their tails results in increased swimming efficiency. (Compare a flattened oar to a rounded pole and you get the picture.) Anguilliform swimming is never more dramatic than when an eel darts out of his hole to seize prey. And here’s something Brother Eel has over even Michael Phelps: he can swim nearly as well backward as forward, which comes in handy when he’s being pursued.

Most species are possessed of an excellent sense of smell. With their two nostrils widely separated — instead of being close together as on most fish — eels have developed over the millennia a highly refined olfactory sense. The one exception is the Garden Eel, which has huge eyes and small nostrils. As a result, Garden Eels rely on their good eyesight and not their sense of smell to capture food.

As for those famous pearly whites, there is actually a wide range of sizes and shapes of teeth among eels, ranging from huge fangs to low and rounded choppers. All morays are carnivorous, but different species feed on different prey. The Green Moray, for example, which eats small fish, shrimps and crabs, has a mouth that extends back to behind the eye and sports single rows of large, sharp teeth in both jaws as well as along the roof of his mouth.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the eel (well, once you get past the dental profile) is the elongated, flattened body. It has thick, scaleless skin that’s covered by a protective layer of yellowish mucus, which repels parasites and disease. (This mucus is what makes a Green Moray green.) Another clever characteristic of morays is their ability to tie their bodies in knots, which gives them greater power to rip apart their food.

Eels have a peculiar larval stage, called leptocephalus, during which it looks nothing like the adult it will grow up to be. During this phase, the youngster is completely transparent and highly compressed, and drifts along with the plankton in the open ocean — sometimes covering a few thousand miles over several weeks (or months). Eventually the eel will stumble upon a suitable habitat, at which time it will begin to transform into a small juvenile eel. Adults don’t move around much, so their leptocephalus phase provides their “overseas experience.”

Green morays

Green Morays, the most common eel in these parts, can actually be any color from yellowish-brown to bright green. Found in water shallower than 150 feet, this solitary fish is typically found hiding out by day in rocky crevices of the reef with just his big head poking out.

Not that many people would be tempted to pet an eel, but don’t be enticed to feed one, either — the rare bites that have been reported usually occur during inappropriate feedings. And whatever you do, don’t eat them! Green Morays can acquire the toxic dinoflagellates microalgae from feeding on coral, and if infected will give humans Ciguatera poisoning, which results in unpleasant gastrointestinal problems lasting up to several days.

goldentailmorayverticalBecause of their size, Green Morays command respect from divers, especially photographers. Barbara feels pretty comfortable getting close enough for photos, such as you see here, because she has a large camera and strobe between her and the eel. And yet she says she’s never had a scary experience and that they’ve actually been pretty compliant about posing for some great shots before beating a hasty retreat into their hole.

Barbara loves to recount the story that Smitty, her favorite Grand Turk dive guide, told her about the time he spotted a large Green Moray on the reef ahead of him. It was mostly out of its hole, its eyes fixed on a porcupine pufferfish swimming toward it. Just as Smitty thought, “Oh, no, ain’t no way,” the greedy moray made a lightning-quick grab and had the puffer in its mouth. A look of pure shock came over the moray’s face as the puffer blew up in its mouth, needle-sharp spines sticking out in all directions. Needless to say, the moray opened as wide as possible and out swam the puffer.

Spotted morays

True to their name, Spotted Morays are easily recognized by the pale to dark greenish-brown spots and blotches that cover their upper body. Sometimes called the Long-finned Eel, this thickset species grows from two to four feet, though they can reach lengths of seven feet and weigh over 35 pounds. Known for their curiosity, this little guy is unlike his fellow eels by his eagerness to come to the water’s surface to have a look at you!

Goldentail morays

Goldentail Morays tend to have golden tails, but the most divers usually see is an exposed head. According to David Smith, an eel expert with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., this species, which grows to one to two feet, has a remarkably wide range of color patterns. Usually it is dark with small pale spots and lines, but sometimes the pattern is reversed, i.e., light with dark markings. Occasionally it has large, irregular blotches instead of spots.

Chain Morays, also known as Chainlink Morays (or just the Chain Eel) are found in shallow inshore reefs and along rocky coastlines. Their bodies, which can grow to 18 inches, range in color from white to yellow with brown and have black or gray “chain” markings similar to certain seasnakes. The more gold-colored and chainlike the patterns, the more their movements are camouflaged — though if you look carefully you can spot them hunting for their favorite snack (crabs) in sunny tide pools. This critter is often mistaken for a seasnake. But look for a dorsal fin on his back, a dead giveaway.

Sharptail eels

The Sharptail Eel is so single-minded about dinner that unlike most other eels, it’s frequently seen out on the town. Gentle and non-aggressive, it’s possible to pick one up with your bare hands. Sharptails often have “hunting buddies” alongside them — opportunistic fish hoping to share in the fruits of the eel’s labors.

Garden eels

chainmorayverticalThe Garden Eel was an unknown creature until scuba- diving became popular three decades ago. Since then, it’s a rare diver who hasn’t come into contact with these fascinating colonizing creatures. Usually found at shallow depths above 50 feet, Garden Eels live in individual sandy burrows, which they construct with a gland in their tail which secretes slime that makes the sand stick together. This is why their burrows do not collapse.

To feed, the Garden Eel rises out of its burrow, revealing about two-thirds of its body, and dines on zooplankton in the current. The Garden Eel relies on its sight and not its smell to capture food.

Divers often see 50 or more in one patch, but as they sense our approach, the frightened Garden Eel will retreat backward into its hole, where it will stay even when spawning, protecting itself from predators by sealing off the burrow with a mucus plug. When swimming towards a colony of Garden Eels, you might think it’s just a field of wavering seagrass, but as you come closer you begin to notice that the grass is disappearing. Though most Garden Eels are notoriously shy, if you move in slowly, they might let you get within three or four feet before darting into their holes. Barbara seems to have an affinity with Garden Eels, for she’s snapped many spectacular shots over the years.

(Special thanks to David Smith, eel expert with the Smithsonian Institution, for his positive identification of Barbara Shively’s Goldentail Moray and the interesting information here about the larval stage of eels.)

New York-based Suzanne Gerber writes about scuba, travel and health for a variety of publications. Book your next dive trip at

Avid underwater photographer Barbara Shively discovered Grand Turk diving in 1997 and has returned every year. It is her passion to share the coral reefs’ beauty with friends and family through her photographs. See her work at:

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