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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sea Things #19: White Spotted Moray Eel

Sea Things is a regular feature on my blog where I profile a different sea creature. Look for it weekly, or something close to weekly.
Eels are funny. Sometimes, like in the above photo, they look like they're smiling and excited and happy and friendly. Sometimes, like below, they look kinda mean. Really, as long as you don't mess with them, they are neither.

There are many types of eels, but today we're talking specifically about the White Spotted Moray, which is one of the most commonly found eels out there on the reef in the Caribbean. They are black and white spotted (seems like they're white with black spots, but it can be hard to tell). They hang out in holes and such on the reef. Eels aren't particularly difficult to spot, they usually have their head sticking out of a hole and they are just sitting there with their mouths open, looking around. Provided you don't touch them, they aren't troublesome to divers and usually just hang out. Periodically, Todd's flash will annoy them and they might get a little uppity.

Spotted Morays can get to be about 3 feet long. They eat fish and such, and if they bite a diver it can be very dangerous. If you look carefully at their teeth, you can see that they bend inward towards the eel's throat. This means, that if they bite down on you, and you pull your hand outward, you are just digging their teeth further into your hand. This is why you don't let the eel bite you in the first place. Like I said, they hang in the holes and just look around and generally make not even a slight attempt to bite a diver. One good way to get bitten? Stick your hand into a random hole. Don't do that.

The scientific name for a spotted moray is Gymnothorax moringa and the diver hand signal for an eel is similar to a crab - just open and close a hand... However, it's easily confused with crab and often Todd and I will do that signal and then make our arm into a snake like thing, to show that it's an eel and not a crab that we see.

When we visited Bonaire in August, 2008, we noticed dead spotted eels on the reef. We saw maybe 2 or 3 of them, when we'd never seen a dead eel before on a dive. This was troubling and we wondered if it was fishermen who had caught the eels by mistake and then thrown them back. In fact, it was found by Bonaire's National Park Foundation (STINAPA) that the spotted eels had a disease that was killing them. It was a vibrio bacteria, that is similar to human cholera. The eels were dying a painful and horrible death, and many, many eels had died.

In the end, the eel deaths came to an end when Hurricane Omar hit in the Fall of 2008. Omar did some reef damage, and wiped out some piers, but otherwise cleaned off the reef and got rid of the Vibrio bacteria. Hooray for nature! The Naturalist, who works for Bonaire Dive and Adventure did a write up on the disease. Indeed, when we returned to Bonaire in March of 2009, we didn't see any dead morays.

Is there a creature that you would like to see featured in Sea Things? If so, shoot me an email and if I can, I'll write about it. Photos on this post are courtesy of Todd Krebs.

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