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Eels of Hawaii

A small Moray Eel pokes its head out of its hiding place in the coral reef

There are about 38 different types of eels in Hawaii and they can be found among the ledges and crevices of our shallow, coastal waters.  Hawaiian eels come in a wide variety of patterns, colors and sizes ranging from the often-seen Yellowmargin Moray Eel to the more elusive Dragon Moray Eel.

The Hawaiian name for eel is Puhi and it is considered an aumakua in Hawaiian Culture.  Aumakua are powerful spirit beings related to a family’s ancestors. They are also considered guardian spirits.

Near-sighted and a little shy 

Eels are shy towards humans. They are often observed opening and closing their mouths as if ready to bite, but in reality they are passing water through their gills in order to breathe. They prefer to stay in their resting or hiding spots when snorkelers are near. Eel safety is simple: don’t place your hands in holes in rocks or the reef – especially if you can’t see what’s inside. Eel bites rarely happen, but when they do it is often because of breaking this rule.

Eels have extremely poor vision and rely mostly on their sense of smell when hunting for food.   One of their favorite things to eat is octopus.  Fortunately for the very intelligent octopus, when it feels threatened it has the ability to spray ink into the water. This not only confuses the nearly blind eel but also momentarily freezes the eel’s sense of smell.

Sometimes a loner – other times amazingly cooperative

Most Eels are solitary hunters that feed at night, but some have been observed in cooperative hunting during the day.  Eels can be seen hunting with grouper, jacks, goatfish and even the occasional reef shark.  We recently observed a Yellowmargin Moray swimming with a large Ulua (Giant Trevally) and a smaller White Tip Reef Shark.

The eel swam into the hole of an octopus at which time the octopus tried to escape from the backside, but the little white tip reef shark was there to grab the octopus and tear it to shreds as the ulua and eel picked up all the remaining pieces.  Of course we didn’t have a camera to capture this wild event, but it was definitely amazing and powerful to watch these fish work together.

Seeing an eel while snorkeling with Kai Kanani is an exciting experience.  Whatever you do, don’t try to pet it or feed it.  You don’t want your finger mistaken for an octopus tentacle. Instead, take photos – eels come in a beautiful array of colors. And let your naturalist know. We’ll be glad to help you identify it.