Puhi kauila the Hawaiian Dragon Moray Eel looks ferocious with its giant clear teeth but the three foot long fish is actually quite docile and I have never seen one try to bite a human! Its Hawaiian name means ‘leopard” after its spotted pattern.
Its teeth are so huge and curved it cannot even totally close its mouth. When divers see this eel it is usually hidden in a rock pile with its head exposed and its mouth wide open as if it is ready to attack. But puhi is not trying to bite anyone, it is just breathing!
Most moray eels breath through their open mouth by sucking in water over their gills, so they usually look alarmed and ready to bite! Out of over 300 different moray eels I have shot video of here in Hawaii only one ever attempted to bite and I think I just scared it at night with my camera!
These colorful eels use their sharp teeth to grab small fish of which they eat whole, just like a snake does. The moray eels lack paired fins so they can slither around the reef in tight cracks looking for small fish to eat. They have two nostrils on their snout for smelling out their prey and the Dragon Moray hunts during the day and night.
Most moray eels are just night active.
When you get close to one of these beautiful reef creatures the moray tends to get frightened and will open its mouth even more to breath more. Just like we would breath faster if a huge great white shark swam up to take a close look at us!
There are over 40 species of moray eels in Hawaii and we have by far the largest moray eel population in the Pacific. On a single hour long dive I have seen up to 12 different moray eels from foot long Dwarf Morays to the eight foot long Giant Moray! Most of the tropical Pacific Islands have lots of large groupers that will eat the moray eels but we have very few here in Hawaii and that may explain our large eel population.
We do have one word of caution when hanging out with our Hawaiian moray eel friends. About the only way to get bit by one is trying to catch one or by sticking your hand in a crack in the reef where one lives. We have a saying that is sometimes told to new divers.
“If you put your hand in a crack and don’t get it back, it’s a moray!” You can check out many of our moray eel species in the movie “The World’s Guide to Hawaiian Reef Fish” on the underwater educational site at www.underwater2web.com. Children can also come swim with the moray eels this summer in a marine science kids camp. Details are at www.reefguardianshawaii.org.
Terry Lilley, a marine biologist, lives in Hanalei. His websites include underwater-2web.com and www.gofundme.com/5urrm4zw