You are finning along a reef with fish swimming all around you when suddenly something makes you stop on your tracks. You see a sight that at once captivates you and implores you to fix your gaze on a head protruding from a hole, seemingly glaring out and opening and closing its jaws in an apparently menacing fashion. You have just spotted a moray eel!
Due to the small size of the gills, morays have to continuously open and close their mouths in a gaping fashion to maintain a flow of water and facilitate respiration. This is often mistaken as aggressive posturing by the unaware and is part of the reason for the moray eel’s fearsome reputation. Another may be their inability, due to poor eye sight, to distinguish where food ends and where human fingers begin. As well as attacking when under threat, moray eels have been known to bite off and swallow digits of those feeding them.
Considered one of the most popular marine animals to spot while diving in Belize, the green moray is really brown. The yellow tint of the mucus that covers its body, in combination with the drab background color, gives the fish its characteristic uniform green color. With flattened bodies, the green moray finds its prey through their sense of smell, sitting and waiting in the reef for fishes, crab, shrimp, octopuses, and squid. These unique creatures are mistaken for sea serpents, and contrary to popular belief, are not poisonous but may cause infection. Moray eels grow up to 8 feet, and the green moray eel is one of the largest species of moray eels.
Their main predators are other moray eels but also large groupers, barracudas and people. In truth this represents very few predators, which explains why they have the confidence to live in burrows or crevices in the reef from which swift flight maybe difficult.
Morays are fished, but are not considered endangered. This is due in no small part to their toxicity. Ciguatoxin, the main toxin of ciguatera, is produced by a toxic dinoflagellate and accumulated up through the food chain, of which moray eels are top, making them dangerous for humans to eat. This fact was apparently the cause of death for King Henry I of England, who expired shortly after feasting on a moray eel.
Moray eel is not on the menu at Reef Conservation International; however, we do spot them on the reef on an almost daily basis 🙂