There are no sea snakes in Hawai‘i as a general rule, but one eel often gets mistaken for a sea snake. Meet puhi la au the snake eel. We have several species of snake eels that people see while diving here in Hawai‘i, and the most common ones are the 18-inch-long, magnificent snake eel that is white with black spots, and the larger, saddled snake eel that is black and white banded.
I often have divers tell me that they have seen sea snakes in Hawai‘i, but as far as I know they are super rare, and only the yellow-bellied sea snake has been found here. The snake eels do look very much like the sea snakes.
Sea snakes are reptiles, and have to go to the surface to breathe. Plus, they are covered in smooth scales without fins. They are highly poisonous, just like venomous land snakes, but they have very small mouths, tiny teeth and are very docile, so it is super-rare that anyone ever gets bit by them. When I dive in the Philippines I may see over a dozen sea snakes on a single dive, and we normally just ignore them and some of the local fishermen will even remove them from their nets by hand without fear of being bit. While filming an entire movie about sea snakes I never once even had one make an aggressive move towards me, and I was within inches of dozens of them.
The snake eels are fish. If you look close at them they have a fin running down their back, and gill openings. They also have a pointed tail, where sea snakes have a paddle-like tail. Both the snake eels and sea snakes feed on small fish they swallow whole, just like a snake on land would swallow a mouse whole.
Hawaiian snake eels are quite common, but divers and snorkelers rarely see them because they usually feed at night and live under the sand during the day. Most of the time when I see them it is breeding season and they are out and about looking for a mate. They are super fun to watch, as they have jerky movements as they probe the reef with their little sensory tentacles looking for food.
Seas snakes and snake eels have banded or spotted patterns. This is because if a predator is after them they zoom away quickly, and their pattern creates an optical illusion, making them look longer then they really are, with the hopes that the predator will try to grab them after they have already gone by. Many snakes on land have the exact same patterns for the same reason.
If you get lucky enough to see a Hawaiian snake eel while out snorkeling, enjoy it, as it is a special treat, and don’t worry that it is a sea snake.
You can see puhi la au in action in my video “The World’s Guide To Hawaiian Reef Fish” at underwater2web.com.
Terry Lilley, a marine biologist, lives in Hanalei. His websites include underwater-2web.com and www.gofundme.com/5urrm4zw.