“What did you see?” is the common refrain when divers return to the boat. In Jupiter, Florida that could be anything from sharks, sawfishes, turtles, and whole schools of reef dwellers. What’s frequently overlooked, however, is the humble eel. At Jupiter Dive Center, we hope you’ll appreciate all the critters you encounter, so today, we’re shining the spotlight on eels.
A bit about eels
The suppleness of their body and their snakelike movement seems at odds with their classification as a bony fish. They have a skull, backbone and ribs. Eels belong to the order Anguilliformes and there are a whopping 737 species that inhabit marine and freshwater habitats—and nearly 200 of them across the globe are morays.
Eels lack scales and pelvic fins, but possess one long fin along its back, tail, and belly which is actually a fusion of the dorsal, anal and caudal fin.
They can swim backwards as well as forward by simply reversing the wave of their body that propels their locomotion.
Most marine eels live in shallow waters and either burrow into the sand or within the crevices of reefs, wrecks or rocks. The first several stages of their life are spent adrift near the surface of the ocean. They start as larvae, grow into glass eels, and then elvers before they can set out in search of a habitat to call home and grow into adult eels. Reproductive age and lifespan vary by species.
🎶 When a fish hits your heel and it looks like an eel…That’s a moray! 🎶
Dad joke aside, divers are most likely to encounter a moray eel—one that’s green, several feet long, with a mouthful of intimidating teeth (a reminder not to blindly stick your hand into a reef crevice—they aren’t aggressive, but they are territorial). Others to look for in Floridian waters include the spotted moray, goldentail moray, and chainlink moray. As you may have guessed, the spotted moray is speckled with light dots on a dark background, and the goldentail is yellow.
The chain moray has a blunt snout and chainlike yellow markings on a darker body. But the distinctive markings aren’t the only thing that set this eel apart from the majority of moray eels.
The chain moray has the ability to survive for short durations out of the water and it can be found hunting among shallow wet rocks at low tide. The trick is the eel must stay wet—which allows it to absorb oxygen through its skin for up to thirty minutes. Also unlike many other eels, chain morays are active during the day.
Also commonly found in Florida’s waters are colonies of spotted garden eels. Located in sandy flats, they are the prairie dogs of the ocean; their tails anchored in their burrows, heads and bodies swaying in the current until the first sign of danger and then they all disappear in unison. They are very sensitive to vibrations (including a diver’s bubbles) making them difficult to photograph.
If you travel further afield, the honeycomb moray eel inhabits the Indio-West Pacific area. These eels have a slender body and numerous black spots over a white to yellowish body.
Where to look for eels while diving
Eels are accomplished hunters. During the day, they often conceal themselves in holes in the reef or sheltered areas on a wreck—which means divers should expect to see only a head with a gaping mouth poking out of their hiding place—and they typically emerge at dusk. And while they are mostly nocturnal, they are opportunistic and you may see them strike prey that swims too close to their hole. When hunting, they rely on their sense of smell to locate and ambush their prey in the rocks and coral.
And while eels are typically nocturnal, that doesn’t mean they don’t occasionally move from place to place or even from reef to reef during the day. A green moray gracefully free-swimming is a beautiful thing to watch.
So book your next adventure with Jupiter Dive Center and the next time you climb onto the boat, you might have one more thing to add to the list of cool things you saw while diving!