A small whitemouth moray eel peeks out from its hideaway in the rocks. It’s astonishing how even quite big eels can disappear into a crack that I can’t even see.
At one of my regular snorkel spots, there’s a place where a small whitemouth eel had taken up residence. I saw it there several times, head sticking out from a hole in the rock, flashing its white mouth. Then one day it was gone, but there was clearly something else in there. It looked like another eel, but I only saw a smooth patch of skin, it was curled in there so tightly.
Recently though, I saw that the creature had turned around and, in the small opening, part of its head could be seen, revealing it to be a small yellowhead moray eel. In the photo, the eel’s eye peers out from its lair, which is surrounded by rock covered with different-colored growths.
Things to like about the zebra moray eel include that they’re probably the easiest eel to identify. They also tend to be quite long and make visually interesting shapes as they meander through rock and coral.
Whitemouth moray eels can squeeze into the tightest spots on the reef and are often seen with just the head sticking out. They’re easy to identify with their bright white mouths, which they’re constantly opening and closing. While this activity looks somewhat menacing, they’re actually forcing water over their gills in order to breathe. That’s not to say that, if you waggle your finger in the face of an eel, it won’t bite it off so, as with most creatures in the water, it’s best to keep at a reasonable distance and be respectful of them.
Undulated moray eels have a reputation for being ill-tempered. This photo shows why it’s a good idea not to provoke that temper – an abundance of long, sharp teeth.
This is an adult snowflake moray eel. Their distinctive markings make them one of the easier eels to identify. Unlike other eels, they don’t have sharp teeth, but pebble-like plates which they use to crush the shells of their invertebrate prey.
Zebra moray eels are one of the easiest eels to identify, their circular stripes differentiating them from any other eel. They feed mostly on crabs, which they crush with their blunt teeth.
These eels can grow to five feet in length, but are usually smaller. This one though is probably about as large as they get. The yellow tang near its head could be as long as six or seven inches, while the saddle wrasse at its tail tops out at ten inches. That would make this eel somewhere between four and five feet long. It’s certainly the biggest zebra moray that I’ve seen.
A smaller whitemouth moray eel displays the feature that gives them the name. An eel will typically open and close its mouth in this way, but it’s not an act of aggression. It’s how they breathe, the motion pumping water over the gills.
This pose, with much or most of the eel hidden in a crevasse or coral head, is also typical. It’s how I make most of my sightings. But every so often I’ll see an eel in open water or passing from one hiding spot to the next. It’s usually a fleeting sight as eels can zip along and disappear into the tiniest of cracks.