One thing wise scuba divers learn when diving tropical reefs around Maui is to slow down and be keen observers of the environment. The reef is where you will discover diverse creatures hiding in the sand and crevices. One such marine species is the eel. Patterns in their smooth, soft skin keep them well camouflaged in the reef, but occasionally you will see their elongated serpentine body emerge from a hiding hole, and gracefully swim to another location. The Hawaiian Islands are home to three of the 16 known eel families in the scientific order of Anguilliformes. Within these three families, there are over 40 species of eel in Hawaii. The largest grouping is the Moray eel, with 38 species.
One common species you might see diving is the white mouth Moray. Brown skin is contrasted with white polka dots and white inside its mouth. You likely will observe the moray continually opening and closing its mouth. This is not an act of aggression. They have small openings protecting fragile gills, making it harder to breathe. That moving jaw is their way to pump oxygen over the gills from the inside. The action also makes for good underwater photo opportunities.
Eels are generally not aggressive toward swimmers or divers, unless you make the mistake of sticking your hand in a hole or crevice. A threatened eel may bite, and though the teeth are small, there are two rows and they are angled backward, which can cause a severe cut if you jerk your hand away. Plus, they are covered in a slippery mucus, which on some species is toxic. Best to observe from a distance!
They mostly rest during the day and come out to hunt at night for fish, octopus and crustaceans. Their excellent sense of smell makes up for their poor eyesight. Without scales, pelvic or pectoral fins, they can poke their head into a hole without getting caught and suck out a crab, crushing it with molar-like teeth. Other times, they will lay hidden and then pounce on passing prey.
Color and Pattern of Morays
Moray eels come in a variety of colors and patterns, ranging from black, gray and brown to more vibrant yellow, green, blue, orange, and white – all of which may occur as patterns of dots, blotches or stripes. Their underside is often a contrasting pale color that helps them avoid predators. It’s common to see moray eels of about 2 to 3 feet in size, but Giant Moray eels, which are occasionally spotted, can be more than 6 feet long!
Eels in Hawaiian Culture
In ancient Hawaii some eels were considered aumakua– spiritual guardians, also considered family or personal gods. Eating or harvesting your amakua was considered very dangerous, and was not done. Don’t worry at the sushi bar though- the ones served there are fresh water eels.