CRITTER: Meet puhi palahoana the Bearded Cusk Eel

  • Terry Lilley / Contributed

    The Bearded Cusk Eel is actually not an eel at all but a kind of ancient fish that usually lives in the deep sea way down on the sand seafloor and can get quite large.

There is a true deep-sea monster here in Hawai‘i that lives in very shallow water but is rarely ever seen! This two-foot-long eel looks like a cross between a catfish and a moray eel, and after 3,000 dives here in Hawai‘i I have only seen two of these unusual fish until the other night. While doing a night snorkel at Sharks Cove in O‘ahu in just three feet deep of water I was surrounded by over 10 of these fish, and got some very rare video of them.

The bearded cusk eel is actually not an eel at all, but a kind of ancient fish that usually lives in the deep sea way down on the sand sea floor, and can get quite large. Fishermen catch this fish from time to time in depths of 500 feet, and they have been observed by mini-subs all the way down to 5,000 feet! This fish is called a brotula, and dates back millions of years in the fossil record. It is usually a drab brown color and has a long dorsal fin down its entire back, and also a long pectoral fin down its belly. On its face it has white whiskers that are sensory fins called barbels.

Since puhi palahoana usually lives in the deep sea, it does not need to use its eyes to find food. This fish swims very fast and undulates its body over the sea floor, detecting crabs and shrimp that live in the sand with its sensory barbels. When it moves through the water it looks like a flag blowing in the wind, which is completely different from a normal, slow-moving eel. Up until recently I have only seen two of these fish way back in caves during the day, and at first I didn’t even know what I was looking at!

I was out on a night snorkel by myself at Sharks Cove on O‘ahu, and saw one of these bearded cusk eels swimming quickly over the sea floor, so I bolted after it with my video camera and lights, as it was the first time I have seen one out in the open. After chasing it for a few seconds another puhi palahoana came out of its hiding place and swam with the one I was chasing, then several more showed up and soon I was surrounded by 10 of these rare creatures.

My only possible explanation for this congregation of cusk eels is they must have been breeding, because this fish is so rare to see, and having a bunch of them out at the same time was a one-of-a-kind experience!

We know through DNA testing that the Hawaiian cusk eel is not related to our moray eels, but the Hawaiians gave it the normal name of puhi, which is the standard name for any eel-type fish, but since it has a Hawaiian name we also know that it was caught for food in the past. Knowing the Hawaiian name of fish tells a lot about the history of that species over the past 1800 years!

You can see puhi palahoana in action in my new documentary movie about marine life that comes out at night here in Hawai‘i that is up on my YouTube at Underwater2web.


Terry Lilley is a marine biologist living in Hanalei and 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


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