Tag Archives: eel

Asia market far extends American eel’s journey

Published August 12, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

It’s easy to see why harmless snake eels, such as this one, are mistaken for sea snakes. All eels are fish. ©2017 Susan Scott

I thought I knew my eels, but a recent news item in this newspaper, about a species called the American eel, left me blank.

The story was about the East Coast’s immature American eels, called elvers, wiggly little fish that are fetching up to $2,000 a pound, live, due to Asian aquaculture demands. Managers worry that such demand is jeopardizing the species.

Were baby eels named after elves? I wondered. Alas, no. The word is a merge of the 17th-century expression “eel fare,” meaning (at the time) eel journey.

The fish were well named.

As adults, American eels live in rivers, estuaries or marine coastal areas, eating insects, fish, fish eggs, crabs, worms, clams, frogs and dead animal matter, all at night. In the daytime, eels hide under rocks and logs.

Females grow to a whopping 5 feet long, and males to 3. Individuals live 15 to 20 years.

Old age for the American eel’s life is far from laid-back. When its biological clock sounds the alarm, the fish stops eating, its eyes double in size and the eel ships to sea.

This fish can breathe through its skin as well as its gills, allowing the eel to slink across wet grass and slither through mud. Mucous glands produce slime over the entire body, making the creature, well, slippery as an eel.

The eel’s destination is the Atlantic Ocean’s Sargasso Sea, a 2 million-square-mile area of warm water about 2,000 miles offshore.

It’s a one-way trip. Once there, each female releases 20 to 30 million eggs as males release sperm. Mission accomplished, the adults die.

Hatched eel eggs drift in the Gulf Stream for a year. When they reach the American coast, the transparent juveniles, 2 to 3 inches long, are called glass eels.

As the little fish head toward estuaries, swim up rivers and settle into coastlines, they turn gray-green. These 4-inchers, called elvers, are what Asian aquaculture farmers want for stock in a lucrative market for eels as food.

The American eel is the only freshwater species in North America, but Europe has a similar one, as does Japan. Dwindling stocks of those species have created poaching of American elvers along the U.S. East Coast.

Hawaii has no freshwater eels, but the reefs around us host so many marine species (42 morays, 12 congers and 17 snake eels) that I keep a separate email file just for “sea snake” sightings.

So far, only two were correct, both the yellow-bellied species that occasionally (but rarely) drifts our way on El Nino currents.

Photos are crucial for ID. A reader recently wrote, “I know you don’t think we have sea snakes in Hawaii, but believe me, I know my eels.” The blurry photo he sent was a snowflake moray.

Snowflake Moray Eel, Hanauma Bay. ©2006 Scott R Davis

Writer none the worse after close encounter with moray

Published September 28, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
 ©2015 Susan Scott

A moray eel is shown here, nestled below a female marbled shrimp. The eel failed to bite the unknowing snorkeler who snapped the picture, even though it easily could have. ©2015 Susan Scott

A moray eel is shown here, nestled below a female marbled shrimp. The eel failed to bite the unknowing snorkeler who snapped the picture, even though it easily could have. ©2015 Susan Scott

To people who fear moray eels: don’t. Unless you accidentally place a hand or foot right in a moray’s mouth, it will nearly always back off. Now I have photographic proof.

While snorkeling recently, I found a female marbled shrimp, one of Hawaii’s most fetching marine animals. The species’ 2- to 3-inch-long body is greenish by day, reddish at night and patterned in a stunning mosaic.

And the splendor doesn’t stop there. Purple and white stripes decorate the marbled shrimp’s legs, and bright spots on the antennae and tail shine yellow.

Marbled shrimp are popular in the aquarium trade because they’re hardy as well as beautiful. Due to the hump on the creature’s back, marbled shrimp are also known as camel, buffalo or broken-back shrimp. Some aquarists call them Saron shrimp, Saron being the shrimp’s first scientific name.


The second scientific name, marmoratus, means marbled, a name referring to the color mix.

Marbled shrimp are common, but we don’t see them often because they hide during the day. At night these walking impressionist paintings roam the reef, eating plants and animals dead or alive.

I knew my shrimp was a female because females’ front pair of legs and bodies contain furry bristles, sometimes so dense the shrimp look like they’re carrying tiny brushes. Years ago while diving with John Hoover, author of several marine animal guides, we came across a dozen of these woolly creatures. “I don’t know their real name,” he told me later, “but I call them Fuller Brush shrimp.”

Male and female marbled shrimp look so different from one another that for years I thought they were two species.

Males never wear fur coats and have a pair of ridiculously long, claw-tipped legs, reminiscent of knights’ jousting sticks. The males use those legs for the same purpose: to fight each other from a distance.


I was thrilled when I found a large female marbled shrimp posing on a coral head in the early morning light. Holding my breath, I lowered my face and camera to the shrimp by hanging onto the underside of the coral rock below it. The shrimp held still for half a dozen shots before she retreated.

Back home I downloaded my pictures — and my eyes nearly popped out of my head. Unknown to me, my darling shrimp had been on the upper lanai of a coral townhouse. So focused was I on the shrimp that I never saw its downstairs neighbor, a yellow margin moray.

I thank the Fuller Brush shrimp for modeling that day and the moray for, amazingly, not biting when my hand was virtually in its mouth. The unlikely pair gave me one of my favorite pictures.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean Watch”,
for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2015 Susan Scott


Messages arrive on the tide to please a seagoing scribe

That’s a moray. ©2015 Susan Scott

That’s a moray. ©2015 Susan Scott

Thank you, thoughtful readers, for sharing marine reports that brighten my day. In this era of so much bad news about the world’s oceans, it’s a relief to read items about them that make me smile.

Such as Obeka’s release. Obeka is the giant Pacific octopus I fell in love with while visiting the Fiero Marine Center in Port Angeles, Wash. On April 26, workers there took Obeka back to her ocean home.


When she came to live at the center, Obeka weighed only 3 ounces. Upon returning to the sea 14 months later, the octopus weighed 35 pounds. Hopefully Obeka will find a mate, lay her 68,000 eggs and tend them until they hatch about nine months later.

Obeka will die soon after her eggs hatch, as all octopuses do, but I don’t feel sad. The creature served as a stellar ambassador for her species and will leave behind the ultimate gift: offspring.

Besides being impressed by octopuses, I’m also obsessed with sea snakes. A friend who knows of my snaky passion sent me a study regarding the bar-bellied sea snake found near the coastline of Western Australia.

sea krait

Sea snakes don’t have many predators, but tiger sharks are one of them. Researchers discovered that at high tide, when the water is deep enough for the sharks to swim near shore, the snakes hang out in sea grass beds where their main source of food, fish, is scarce. When the tide goes out, though, so do the sharks, and the snakes resume their usual hunting over sand flats.

But the study doesn’t just show that sea snakes are smart enough to avoid predators — most prey animals are. It’s also a heads-up to biologists. When studying habitat and foraging behaviors of the bar-bellied sea snake, researchers need to note the state of the tides.

Bar-bellied sea snakes are the longest of all sea snakes, growing to 6 feet. I’ve not seen one. I live in hope.

Another reader sent a National Geographic link about by-the-wind sailors.

While approaching Australia’s east coast last fall, I sailed through massive numbers of these jelly creatures for 24 hours. The ones I saw peppered the water’s surface far and wide. But when the wind and currents are just right, or just wrong if you’re a by-the-wind sailor, the creatures run aground. Check out these amazing photos of millions of these jellies shipwrecked last month on West Coast beaches: bit.ly/1GVK0UH.

Scooped at sea_small

Finally, as a reminder that I shouldn’t take the negative news crowding my inbox too seriously, I’ll keep in mind last week’s message from a snorkeling buddy:

“When you’re down by the sea,

And an eel bites your knee,

That’s a moray.”

Thanks everyone for messages that make me smile.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2015 Susan Scott


Beyond serpentine shape, eels and snakes not related

Published July 29, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

The snowflake moray eel morphs from female to male is it ages. ©2013 Susan Scott

Last week I received an email from a reader who went for an early morning swim in Kaneohe Bay. “I looked down and saw what looked like a dozen or so snakes on the floor, maybe 15 feet deep,” the unsigned note said. “Was I seeing things? Sorry, no pics. I just beat it back to the house that I am house-sitting this week.”

With no photo I can’t be sure of the identity of my reader’s “snakes.” but as Hawaii hosts no reef-dwelling sea snakes, my bet is it was a bunch of eels still out from a night of hunting.

Because eels are well adapted to hiding in cracks and holes in the reef, and usually search for fish and invertebrates at night, it’s hard to appreciate their numbers and diversity in Hawaii.

Island waters host 42 species of moray eels, second in number only to the wrasses (44). And there are more: snake eels, conger eels, garden eels, worm eels and spaghetti eels. To further muddy the identification waters, some morays are called snake morays, and a few form a family called false moray eels.

But don’t let the shape, names, spots or stripes fool you. All Hawaii’s eels, as well as all eels in the world, are fish. No relation to snakes. It’s just that the serpentine form works well in the ocean.

Because of their snaky appearance, fears and myths about eels abound. But eels are so amazing on their own, we don’t need to make stuff up. Here are some of my favorite eel facts:

» Moray eels usually swallow fish or crabs whole, but when a captured prey is too big, morays tie themselves in knots. The eel forms two loops around its body with its tail and jerks its head through the tightened knot. The motion either tears or flattens the prey into swallowing size.

» The snowflake moray has blunt cone-shaped teeth for crushing its favorite food, crabs and shrimp. This beautiful eel could be the poster child for the transgender community: It begins life female and later changes to male.

» The sharply pointed tails of snake eels are digging tools so efficient that the eels can cruise around tail-first beneath sand and sediment.

» Because some of Hawaii’s eel species bear stripes and spots, people often mistake them for sea snakes. They’re just, however, great pretenders. “Back off,” those colors warn. “I might be a snake.” For my house-sitting emailer, the mimicry worked.

I once witnessed an eel convention while swimming at dusk. After finding myself in the company of eight eels of several species, I too beat it back to my house. My rush, though, was to fetch my camera.


Small Snowflake Eel – Hanauma Bay. ©2013 Scott R. Davis

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2013 Susan Scott

Slinky ell, hungry fish highlight Hanauma visit

Published April 7, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

ALL Nature wears one universal grin. (Henry Fielding, 1730)

Last week, my Michigan visitor and I were at the Waikiki Aquarium watching a snakelike creature worm its way through the rocks of its tank.

My friend Gail shuddered and stepped back. “I have this thing about snakes,” she said.

“This isn’t a snake,” I told her. “It’s an eel — a spotted snake eel.”

“It doesn’t matter what you call it. It looks and acts like a snake.”

I looked at the eel. Its cylindrical, whitish body with brown spots slithered through the holes with all the agility and creepiness of a snake.

Sure, the creature had a full-length fin running down its back, the sure sign of an eel. And its water-breathing gills definitely made it a fish.

But Gail was right — the critter looked acutely snakeoid.

“We should keep moving,” I said. “We want to get to Hanauma Bay while the sun is still high.” As we left the exhibit, Gail eyed the spotted eel warily.

“Don’t worry,” I assured her. “You couldn’t see one of these things if you tried all day.”

The aquarium was fun. We spent more time there than we planned, making it late afternoon when we arrived at Hanauma Bay.

We plunged into the water and headed straight outside the reef. There, the first creature we saw was, of course, a spotted snake eel. It was slinking its way in and out of the rubble about 20 feet beneath us.

Gail took it well, but you can bet she was not one of the group to dive down for a closer look.

We were lucky (I thought) to see this usually hard-to-find creature because of our tardy arrival at the bay.

Spotted snake eels are mostly nocturnal, coming out in the late afternoon or early evening to sniff around the bottom for small fish and invertebrates.

Eels are common residents of Hawaiian reefs. But even though all eels are called puhi in Hawaiian, not all eels are alike.

In Hawaii, members of three eel families are the most commonly seen: conger and garden eels, moray eels and snake eels.

Of the snake eels, the spotted is the only one I’ve seen while snorkeling or diving. This was my second viewing.

The other was near Magic Island, a prime spot for the eels in the late afternoon.

Spotted snake eels are also called magnificent snake eels, a name that reflects their scientific one: Myrichthys magnificus. It’s also descriptive of these true beauties.

Known as puhi laau in Hawaiian, individuals grow to about 3 feet long.

After the snake eel sighting, we swam back inside the reef. Gail wondered why so many fish seemed to be following her.

“They’re used to being fed,” I said.

“Oh? What do you feed them?”

“Wait here.” I hurried to shore, bought some approved fish food at the concession stand, and returned to distribute the packets.

“What do we do now?” Gail asked.

“Just swim out a little way, tear open the package and sprinkle the food around,” I said.

“Is it safe?”

“Sure,” I said. “People do it all the time.”

As Gail headed to a deeper spot, the biodegradable wrap on her fish food began to disintegrate in the water. At the same time, an enormous, aggressive chub (also called rudderfish or nenue) spotted the bag’s puka in Gail’s trailing hand, zoomed in for a snack and bit her thumb.

The injury was minor, and again, Gail was a good sport. Still, I felt terrible.

After that, I took her to a bookstore.