Meet the Lion’s paw sea cucumber

  • Lions Paw Sea Cucumber

Sometimes when I scuba dive or snorkel in Hawaii I see things that just do not look real! Weli the lion’s paw, or conspicuous sea cucumber, is one of them!

I was scuba diving in Kaneohe Bay in Oahu at about 20-feet deep in an area of muddy sea floor covered in algae and went around a corner then saw what looked like 50 bright orange, four-feet long pieces of rope all tangled up in the algae. At first I though someone had dumped a truck load of old nylon rope or even old underground cables out into the bay.

But as I approached with my movie camera to document the mess, all of these orange rope like structures shriveled up and disappeared into the algae growth. Wow! What the heck had I just seen?

I have seen thousands of different sea cucumbers in Hawaii that range from six-inches long to four-feet long but most are a drab colors and blend in with the sea floor. Sea cucumbers are the vacuum cleaners of the sea and are very important to keep our coral reefs clean. Most sea cucumbers eat the mud or sand on the sea floor in calm lagoons and bays and digest the organic material then poop out clean sand which keeps our bays and beaches clean.

For some unknown reason, parts of Kaneohe Bay have these giant four-feet long sea cucumbers that are bright orange, purple or even pure white! In other parts of Hawaii these same type of sea cucumbers are brown or have light yellow bands so why are they so colorful in this one Oahu South Shore Bay?

As I approached all of the weli in the algae I noticed that they had shrunk from four-feet long to about a foot long within seconds. This is because their skin is paper thin and their body is filled with sea water. If they expel the sea water they shrink up like an accordion.

Once I remained still for a few minutes they filled back up with sea water, stretched out to their original size and started feeding again. They have oral tentacles that move and filter food out of the water on the sea floor, and then move the food into their mouth. Watching 40 bright yellow four foot long creatures by myself on the sea floor was quite comical and all I could do was laugh and shoot some video because no one will believe what I was seeing.

After the dive I talked to a few local residence that live on the edge of Kaneohe Bay and asked them if they had ever seen the fluorescent orange sea cucumbers out in front of their homes and they just looked at me as if I had been underwater way too long and was hallucinating! Just happy I had my video camera with me!

We have lots of very unique and strange marine life here in Hawaii and you can see many of them, including weli, in my movie, “The Worlds Guide To Hawaiian Reef Creatures” up on my educational web page at I also have a full Hawaiian fish identification link on the web so you can ID any of the fish species you see while snorkeling and diving here in Hawaii.

Aloha from under the waves.


Terry Lilley, marine biologist, Hanalei,,, All Photographs © 2016 Terry Lilly

  1. Charlotte Elizabeth Lynch January 12, 2020 3:29 am Reply

    Thank you so much for this educational and great information!! Glad to know the reefs and sea floor are being cleaned!!!

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