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That's A Moray

"When . . . the . . . moon hits you eye, like a big pizza pie . . . that’s amore. When the world seems to shine, like you’ve had too much wine, that’s . . . a moray?"

All right, sorry, had to do it. And if you haven’t yet guessed, the subjects of March’s Creature Feature are in fact, Moray Eels. Yes, we will be talking about those notoriously ornery critters known as eels. But, the funniest part about it is that these animals are actually quite shy and just about blind as bats. Well, bats aren’t actually blind, but that’s a whole different tangent that I won’t even start to pursue here.

What I do want to pursue are the misconceptions surrounding moray eels. Most of which are due to movies or ridiculous episodes of Baywatch involving electric eels that trap scantily clad lifeguards in storm drains. One of my most favorite movies unfortunately contributes to the bad rap of morays. In the movie, "The Princess Bride," I distinctly remember Vizzini informing Princess Buttercup that she was floating in waters that were infested with eels that fed on human flesh. And to make matters worse, I believe the eels would be more accurately referred to as "shrieking eels." I don’t know about you, but that image doesn’t make me any more inclined to jump into the ocean for a leisurely morning swim. Another reason why Morays have been misunderstood for so long is that people really didn’t know very much about eels other than tales of giant sea serpents that swallowed ships whole.

Ok, onto the truth about these critters. Moray Eels can be easily found by Scuba and freedivers alike in just about every reef community of the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans. They typically hang out in shallow, rocky environments with only their heads sticking out from a crack in the rocks. However, not all Morays are exposed at all times, and this is when unlucky divers (or macro photographers) that poke around in the rubble get snagged on an Eel (or the Eel gets snagged on them?). The thing to remember is the Moray Eels are most likely not going to emerge from the rocks and bite you. That is unless people are constantly telling you that your hands are extremely fluid underwater and your fingers sort of resemble the tentacles of an octopus.

Eels are classified as bony fishes and are described in approximately 20 families. Moray Eels belong to only one of these families, known as the family Muraenidae. Wolf Eels, critters familiar to many Pacific divers, are not described as Moray Eels but are rather blennies. There are approximately 100 species of Moray Eels that range in size from 2 to 10 feet in length (probably would be hard to swallow a hundred foot ship with all its crew, don’t you think?). In fact, the largest species of Moray Eel is the Giant Moray, which occurs in the Red Sea and throughout the Indo-Pacific and reaches a maximum length of 10 feet.

I mentioned the fact that Moray Eels are in fact bony fishes because many people think they belong to a grouping all their own. Although there are several differences between Morays and other bony fishes, they are actually classified together.

One of the major differences between Morays and other bony fishes is that Morays lack the scales that are so characteristic of bony fishes. A scale-less skin allows Moray Eels to quickly and easily move in and out of crevices of the reef without getting snagged on rocks.

The disgruntled reputation of Moray Eels can definitely be attributed to this next difference. While most bony fishes have large gill covers that pump water over their gills, Morays only have small round gill openings that don’t pump enough water on their own. Therefore, Morays constantly open and close their mouths to pull oxygenated water over their gills. So, when you see the head of a Moray Eel poking out of the rocks, most likely it is simply breathing rather than threatening you to "steer clear buddy," with its mouthful of snaggly teeth.

With mouths that are constantly open it is easy to see why so many dentists are attracted to the sport of Scuba diving. All right, that was a bad joke, but it is hard to miss the thin teeth of Morays that curve back into their mouths. The curved teeth enable these fishes to hold onto a slippery meal. They can deeply embed their teeth in the hand of a diver who automatically pulls back when bitten, a Moray can’t see where a tasty treat ends and a hand begins. Remember that sentence when your dive guide says you can lure the eels out of the rocks with food!

Like I mentioned earlier, Moray Eels have poor eyesight. However, like most other nocturnal hunters, their sense of smell is highly developed. Here’s a little morsel of information, the nostrils of Moray Eels are known as tube nares and actually look like little tubes. On the other hand, the morsels of food they sniff out consist of small fishes, shrimps and crustaceans, as well as one of their most favorite delicacies, octopus.

You’d think all of us Scuba diving, camera-wielding voyeurs would know more about the mating habits of Morays, but we are just beginning to unravel their secrets. What we do know is that most Moray Eels lay eggs that hatch within four to five months. Once the larvae hatch, they enter the water column as plankton for approximately three to four weeks before they settle out to a shallow and suitable bottom environment where they grow-up to be happy, not ornery, Eels.

Abi Smigel Mullens
Abi Smigel Mullens
Abi is a travel writer and photographer specializing in the underwater world. She is also associate editor of Wetpixel, the premiere community website dedicated to underwater photography and videography. When not diving and traveling, or writing about diving and traveling, she runs PictureHum, the Airbnb of family photography in the US.