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Inside the Mouth of the Whitemouth Eel

eels hawaii

Molokini Crater has 250 species of fish, give or take a few, and depending on who’s counting. Archeological evidence suggests that Native Hawaiian people have come to fish this crescent-shaped islet since the 6th Century.

Today Molokini Crater is a Marine Preserve and so you won’t see traditional fisheries here any longer. You have to go elsewhere to do that. But what you can see is one of the wonders of Hawai’i, where we often have water clarity up to 150 ft.

Names for and Behavior of the Whitemouth Eel

Enter one of Molokini Crater’s most recognizable residents: the Whitemouth Eel, known by our Hawaiian people as Puhi’oni’o or by scientists as Gymnothorax meleagris, the Moray Eel.

This beautiful fish can often times be seen on our Molokini Crater snorkel tours swimming along contours in the reef, equally at home in the curves, contours and grooves of the reef surfaces, as in its own burrow. Many times Moray Eels wait at the entrance of their burrow, always ready to strike should an opportunity present itself.

Keeping One’s Fingers Out of Moray Eel Habitat

Moray Eels are one of the main reasons guests to Hawaii are encouraged not to put their fingers and toes in holes in the reef. Not only does touching the reef while snorkeling cause damage to our fragile underwater ecosystem, a variety of sharp, spiny, and in the Moray’s case, poor-sighted creatures live just out of sight.

Moray Eels rely on an a powerful sense of smell to hunt and find their way around our reef system and they possess a unique set of teeth. These teeth are home to a second jaw, and an inner set of teeth that work together to ensure that when a fish goes in to a Moray’s mouth it doesn’t come back out.

When treated with respect and given their space, Moray Eels can be viewed as an important part of our reef ecosystem. And a beautiful part, too. They move with grace and fluidity and often have colorful markings. They are also known to hunt and cooperate with other species of fish in Molokini Crater.

Moray Eels in Hawaiian Culture

Some of our Native Hawaiian families regard Moray Eels as ‘aumaka, or beneficial beings that have come back to guide and inspire us. We join with these families and hope that Moray Eels can have a special place in the hearts of everyone who explores Molokini Crater.  These beautiful creatures connect us to an ancient past and inspire us to protect underwater ecosystems for generations to come.