The moray eel

Moray eel with crazy blue eyes

Eels are technically fish, so that makes the moray eel one crazy, cool looking fish. Moray eels or Gymnothorax mordax can grow up to five feet and are the only eels along California’s coast that don’t have pectoral fins. If you get really bothered by loud mouth breathers, then you would probably find the moray eel really annoying. According to the book California Marine Life by Marty Snyderman, “Moray eels lack the large gill covers used by other fishes to pump water over their gills for oxygen extraction, and instead have only a small, round gill-opening. This lack of gill covers requires morays¬† to use their mouth as they respire.”

Snyderman feels that this has led to a lot of bad moray eel publicity because an open mouth makes them look more frightening, like they are about to bite. When really they are just breathing. Moray eels usually avoid divers and swim back for cover to their favorite rock dens/crevices. Just don’t go sticking a hand into their home, that could lead to a bite.

Moray eels rely on their sense of smell to find prey including fish, octopi, shrimp and crabs. According to Dr. Milton Love’s book Probably More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast, moray eels are found most commonly in shallow water to about 60 feet, but do travel as far as 130 feet once in a great while.

I had the opportunity to touch a moray eel and it was smooth and slimy. In his book, Snyderman explains the slimy effect is a mucus-coating that allows eels to move easily in tight spaces. He also mentions that moray eels are often accompanied by red rock shrimp that kindly clean the eel’s skin by removing parasites and dead tissues. Eew.

The moray eel in the photo is actually probably getting pretty old because it looks like it has cataracts. You can see the light blue glazed look of the eyes. That’s not normal, a typical moray eel has beady black and yellow eyes. But since eels rely on their sense of smell to find food, this eel is probably doing okay despite the handicap.


  1. JNapoli says

    Cool! Have long known about these guys, but really didn’t “know” about them. I love the fact that they are only breathing and not getting ready to bite. Unlike some of my friends.

  2. Bryan says

    Another great post! I knew nothing about moray eels until reading this, that’s very interesting that they are mouth breathers and have shrimp to eat their parasites. That seems to be common among marine life, one organism feeding off the parasites of another.

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