Most divers think moray eels are large, snake-like creatures with giant, sharp teeth. And they are usually correct.
The largest moray eel ever found in Hawai‘i was 11 feet long and weighed over 150 pounds.
But not all morays are large, and Hawai‘i has the smallest moray eel on earth that only grows to 12 inches long. Its Hawaiian name is “puhi,” and it is called a dwarf moray eel.
Very few divers ever see this secretive creature, as it lives in the rocky reef and only sticks its tiny yellow head out to look around from time to time.
Most moray eels have large, curved teeth for grabbing fish, but the dwarf moray has super-small teeth for feeding on small shrimp.
Like all moray eels they breathe through their open mouth, so when a diver gets close to an eel it gets excited and breathes more, so it looks like it is ready to attack with an open mouth filled with large teeth.
Puhi the dwarf moray can be dinner to large moray eels, and also large predator fish like the giant ulua (trevally).
All throughout the Pacific Ocean are large grouper fish, except in Hawai‘i. These groupers feed on small and young moray eels. But in the main Hawaiian Islands we do not have any native grouper, so we have lots of moray eels.
On an average scuba dive in Hawai‘i I see from two to 10 moray eels and no native grouper. But on an average dive in Palau and Tahiti I see five to 10 grouper and no moray eels. So Hawai‘i has become the moray eel capitol of the Pacific.
We have so many moray eels in Hawai‘i that one species even feeds on other moray eels as its main food source.
It is called the tiger moray. In Hawai‘i, a non-native grouper was introduced in the 1950s, called the “roi” (peacock grouper), and many of the dwarf morays have been eaten by this introduced fish that they do not recognize as a predator. So in past times the tiny dwarf moray eel may have been much more common on Hawaiian coral reefs.
You can see puhi in action in the movie “The World’s Guide to Hawaiian Reef Fish” on the underwater educational web page, underwater2web.com, and visit moray eels in person at the nonprofit Coral Reef Kids Camp at reefguardianshawaii.org.
Aloha from under the surf.
Terry Lilley, a marine biologist, lives in Hanalei. His websites include underwater-2web.com and www.gofundme.com/5urrm4zw.