Eels do not go out of way to bite people
LAST WEEK, I wrote about moray eels tying themselves in knots, and received an e-mail from a former Hawaii resident. He saw an eel knot itself during a Big Island dive, and offered the shop's name as proof, since the dive master caught the behavior on video.
I'll check it out next time I'm there, but not because I doubt it happened. I just want to see it.
Another moray story comes from Scott Michael, the author of one of my favorite fish books. At 12, the marine biologist writes, he fell in love with a spotted moray and begged his mother for a saltwater tank. She agreed on one condition: he sing in the boys choir.
This he viewed as a fate worse than death, but he had to have that eel. He joined the choir.
A Kona Coast diver sent me an eel story involving fishhooks. While diving one night, the man spotted a moray with a hook stuck in its mouth. This hook was so large the poor eel couldn't close its mouth. So this brave, compassionate diver reached in and grabbed the hook.
"As the eel writhed and squirmed like the dickens, I held on," he writes. "After what seemed like an eternity (only a minute or so), the hook broke loose from the eel's mouth. The eel slithered back into the puka, turned around and smiled at me -- or so it seemed."
Amazingly, the same thing happened to the same man two weeks later during another night dive. "Since then, I've not seen a hook in an eel's mouth once," the diver wrote. "And those experiences happened more than 15 years ago."
An eel tale someone tells me every once in a while is that a diver, usually a cousin's friend's husband's brother, had to cut off a moray's head because the biting eel wouldn't let go.
I don't believe it. Eels aren't piscine pit bulls, nor do they try to eat us. If they strike a human, it's in defense only. Then the eel lets go.
Morays can be scary, though, as my recent experience shows.
I often tell people a moray will bite only if the person provokes the fish by sticking a hand or foot near its face. Imagine my alarm then as I watched my scuba-diving friend, Scott, swim perilously close to a large eel's swaying head.
The moray ducked into its hole as Scott, unaware, drifted by. But as he explored the coral head, I, out of air and snorkeling above, saw the alarmed eel clearly.
Scott looked up at me, his foot near the eel's face, and I jabbed my finger toward it. Instantly I saw my mistake.
Thinking I meant look in the hole, down Scott went, head first toward the eel, not seeing the danger. He was quite close to the eel's big white teeth before he finally saw the fish. With amazing speed, Scott swam backward, narrowly escaping injury.
In the future, I'll use better hand signals.
Morays look like snakes, are shy and retiring, but can be menacing and dangerous. Scott Michael concluded that having such an animal for a pet was worth joining a boys choir. Still, he writes, he hopes the price of owning one is smaller for others.