CRITTER: Meet the giant moray eel, an open-sea marvel

  • Terry Lilley / Contributed photo

    Giant Moray Eels in Hawai‘i are called puhi and most of them are harmless and afraid of divers.

There still are monsters that roam the sea. and the giant moray eel is one of them! We are lucky that these eels are rare in the main Hawaiian Islands because they can get to be 10-foot long and weigh over 100 pounds! They have a mouth full of large, sharp teeth, and dozens of divers have been seriously wounded by this aggressive, bold fish. This moray can catch and eat a large parrotfish (uhu) whole, and I saw one of these eels in Moloka‘i that had a head the size of a basketball.

Out of over 3,000 dives I have done in Hawai‘i I have only seen three of these monster eels, and they are truly impressive, and I have been careful to stay well away from them except for one very-crazy experience. All of the divers who have been bitten by these big morays were spearfishing. The giant moray eats fish, and has no problem taking a fish away from a diver spearfishing. Even sharks are not as aggressive!

I was out spearfishing near a small island off of the lighthouse in Kilauea, and spearing the invasive peacock grouper (roi) for a project with the University of Hawai‘i, and I had two roi in my yellow fish bag and had just speared another one. When I spear a fish I leave my fish bag a distance away from myself just in case a shark comes by and wants to grab it for a free meal. This time I was surprised when I went back to the fish bag that was sitting on a rock as I opened the bag and put the roi in. Then all of a sudden this massive giant moray came out of a cave and grabbed the bag right out of my hands! It then tried to pull the bag with the three big fish in it back into its cave, but the bag was too big. I turned on my video camera and started filming this whole event.

I sat there for a while wondering what I should do. I wanted my bag back, but the moray had it clenched tightly in its jaws and I was not going to get in a tug-of-war with this huge eel, so I got an idea. I left the eel for a few minutes and speared a small ta‘ape fish and took the fish off the spear. I swam back to the moray, who was still trying to pull my fish bag into its cave, and I took the ta‘ape and dropped it on the sea floor about 10 feet in front of the hungry moray. After about five minutes of filming the event, the moray dropped my fish bag, left its cave and went out to eat the ta‘ape! I saw my chance and grabbed my fish bag and swam very fast as far away as I could get before the eel changed its mind!

The only other time I have seen one of these giant morays was at Tunnels reef (Makua) about six years ago when a six-foot giant moray showed up right where everyone scuba dives. The eel would follow around some of the divers, and we all decided to just not dive the area until it left, which took about a week.

Moray eels in Hawai‘i are called “puhi,” and most of them are harmless and afraid of divers. They breathe through their mouths, so they open and shut their mouths to breathe, which shows off their sharp teeth. They normally won’t bite a person, but some of the research divers up in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands where the giant morays are more common have to dive with a buddy when collecting fish. One of the divers will have a long metal pole to chase away any giant morays that come along to steal the researchers’ fish!

You can see puhi in action in my underwater movie “The World’s Guide To Hawaiian Reef Fish” up on my underwater educational web page at underwater2web.com.

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Terry Lilley is a marine biologist living in Hanalei. He is co-founder of Reef Guardians Hawai‘i, a nonprofit on a mission to provide education and resources to protect the coral reef. To donate to Reef Guardians Hawai‘i go to www.reefguardianshawaii.org.

3 Comments
  1. Glenn October 3, 2021 4:28 pm Reply

    Love it — great story.
    Even little eel species can be scary with that toothy mouth-breathing. Glad I’ve never encountered the big guy.


  2. Wil Welsh October 4, 2021 2:29 pm Reply

    Years ago diving on the rock break-water in Nawiliwili Bay, I saw such an eel. I have described it to friends as having a “head as big as a basketball!” That was quite literally true. He was in space created between the large boulders creating the wall and about ten to 15 feet down. The huge puhi had no doubt viewed me for sometime before I saw it and nearly leaped out of the water! Fortunately, I didn’t look edible and hadn’t speared any fish.


  3. Eric Greenfield October 6, 2021 6:44 am Reply

    You can see them up close at poipu baby beach, just don’t shove your hands in the rocks of they’ll get ya.


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