All about Eels

If you've snorkeled or dived the waters of Belize, then it's likely you've spotted one of the most curious-looking inhabitants of the sea. The Moray eel (Muraenahelena), characterized with a swaying serpent-head and teeth-filled jaw that continually opens and closes, is most commonly seen with only its head appearing from behind rocks. At night, however, this animal leaves its home along the reef to hunt and scavenge for small fish, crustaceans, shrimp, and octopus. The preferred habitats of the Moray eel are saltwater areas along the coast, near coral reefs or kelp forests. Moray eels are generally not a threat to divers, although a local dive guide carrying bait was recently left with a serious injury from a hungry eel. There are over 100 kinds of eels found throughout the World's oceans, but in the western Atlantic and Caribbean there are only fifteen species of Moray eels.

The most common species to this area is the Green Moray. This species is characterized with a stocky body that is usually green or brown. As the largest species, the Green Moray can grow to eight feet in length! In contrast to the Green Moray, which has no markings, the Spotted Moray displays dark spots and markings over its entire body. This species is also more slender and can only grow to four feet. True to its name, the Purplemouth Moray exhibits purple linings around its mouth distinguishing them from other species. Growing only to three feet, the Purplemouth Moray is usually brown with yellowish undertones. Another commonly found species in Belize is the Goldentail Moray, which is one of the smaller Morays, growing to only two feet. As its name indicates, it has a golden-colored tail, but divers usually only see its exposed head.

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun
These animals are excellent predators, but do not make for very satisfying prey. Sharks will only eat eels if they are in great need of food and when humans consume the poisonous meat of an eel there is often a toxic effect. Strangely, sometimes its only prey is another eel, such as the Caribbean Moray, which will eat other Morays. For the most part, however, the Moray eel has evolved excellent defense mechanisms as well as an effective reproductive cycle allowing populations to flourish and avoid an endangered status. Moray reproduction is a relatively quick process with Morays laying eggs that hatch within four to five months. After the larvae hatch, it takes another three to four weeks for the larvae to become an eel.

The best time to see a Moray eel is when you are with an experienced dive or snorkel guide familiar with the area you are in. Most guides know which crevices to look under or which rocks to look around. As long as you keep your distance from the eel and never blindly stick your hand into a crevice, you should be safe from the harsh bite of this primitive-looking creature.

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