That's a Moray!
from the book, "Our Fascinating Earth"

Book: 
Our Fascinating Earth

That's a Moray!

The moray eel, according to accounts from early divers, is one of the ogres of the deep. As fish stories go, the moray's reputation is far worse than it deserves. Tales of this shy, retiring eel have labeled it an aggressive, killing, and mutilating sea monster. As it attacks a person diving or searching for seafood, the moray is reputed to take a tenacious grip on a leg or arm and to hold the victim underwater until he drowns. It is also reputed to be poisonous to eat or to be bitten by.

At present 120 known species of moray eels are living in warm seas, especially around coral reefs. They live in tropical or subtropical waters no deeper than 150 feet and are rarely seen in the open sea. They spend much time in crevices and cavities around rocks and reefs, seldom venturing out except when they are disturbed or during the night to feed. If they are sufficiently alarmed they may escape to the surface and swim with the head and forepart of their body held high above the water, looking incredibly like the familiar photographs of the fabled monster from Loch Ness.

Morays range in size from a mere six inches to over twelve feet in length and in color from somber brown to stripes, stars, and spots in many gaudy but camouflaging colors. Undoubtedly the long snakelike body has contributed to its negative reputation, and recent fiction and films have capitalized on just that fact. As it lurks under a rock or glides along with its mouth open, the moray seems to be inviting all who approach to come in for lunch. Because the moray has a small opening to the gill pouch, it needs a continuous flow of water through the mouth to breathe. Therefore its food consists of animals, dead or alive, that can be swallowed whole, and if it tried to hold a human underwater, the moray would be in danger of drowning before its prey.

According to historic records the Romans seem to have regarded the moray as an esteemed delicacy. There is a record of a single banquet given by Caesar in which at least 6,000 moray eels were eaten as the main course. They have been eaten in Mediterranean countries ever since.

As part of their bad reputation it is believed by many that the morays are venomous. During the last half century there was a report of fifty—seven people in the Mariana Islands who sat down to a meal of moray. Most of them became quite ill, with numbness, difficulty in breathing, and convulsions; several became comatose, two of whom died. With the use of morays as food near waters where they are common, this appears to be a rare misadventure. Present—day evidence compiled by skin—diving scientists clearly shows that morays will try to avoid humans, probably more anxiously than any person tries to avoid them.

Not surprisingly, when cornered or speared, a moray eel will lunge and bite in a tremendous effort to escape. There are authentic records of severe wounds resulting from encounters with this fish. In attacking, the moray's behavior seems to resemble that of a venomous snake, for it rears its head and the front part of the body and strikes down. These movements undoubtedly reminded early divers of a striking snake. The idea that a moray's bite is poisonous probably emerges from its striking—snake pose, along with the fact that, after sinking its razor—sharp teeth into any fleshy morsel, the moray tends to hold on. Wounds from its bite are severe because infection can easily result. But there are no poison glands to supply their teeth, so tenacity is their most damaging threat.

However, make no bones about it, there have been cases of people being attacked by morays that were not provoked. But scientists almost without exception believe this occurs only during breeding season. Sexual excitement apparently drives them into a frenzy. When the Kon Tiki raft was wrecked on an atoll in the Pacific, its crew was chased from the lagoon by morays. The scientific members of the Royal Indian Marine Survey ship Investigator had a similar experience on the Betrapar Atoll in the Indian Ocean in 1902. On that occasion it was noted that the eels were breeding.

There is a growing suspicion that many sea serpent stories are founded on the sightings of commonplace objects seen at unusual angles at various times and places. One could be the moray eel. When disturbed, the moray will sometimes swim at the surface with the forepart of the body and head held high above the water. A twelve—foot moray with its bizarre coloring, swimming in this manner with the front end of the dorsal fin looking like a mane, would approximate the conventional picture of a sea serpent!

A special trick of the moray is to throw its body into a knot, letting the knot travel forward to or backward from the head. This is a useful strategy that allows the moray to free itself from certain capture. A scientist recently observed an octopus grab a moray about the head. By throwing itself into a movable knot it slipped its body back through the loop to force the octopus's tentacles off its head. When a moray eel is hooked on a line, it will try to free itself in the same manner. And somehow, in so doing, the eel actually climbs the line, tail first.

This maneuver can have terrifying results, as demonstrated by a recorded incident off Palm Beach, Florida. Here three fishermen in a relatively small boat were enjoying an afternoon of fishing until one of them hooked a twelve—foot moray eel. In trying to escape via the knot route, the fish climbed the line. The three men were paralyzed with fear as the gigantic moray came writhing aboard their boat tail first! Without hesitation all three fishermen jumped overboard!