Last week, my Michigan visitor and I were at the Waikiki Aquarium watching a snakelike creature worm its way through the rocks of its tank.
My friend Gail shuddered and stepped back. "I have this thing about snakes," she said.
"This isn't a snake," I told her. "It's an eel -- a spotted snake eel."
"It doesn't matter what you call it. It looks and acts like a snake."
I looked at the eel. Its cylindrical, whitish body with brown spots slithered through the holes with all the agility and creepiness of a snake.
Sure, the creature had a full-length fin running down its back, the sure sign of an eel. And its water-breathing gills definitely made it a fish.
But Gail was right -- the critter looked acutely snakeoid.
"We should keep moving," I said. "We want to get to Hanauma Bay while the sun is still high." As we left the exhibit, Gail eyed the spotted eel warily.
"Don't worry," I assured her. "You couldn't see one of these things if you tried all day."
The aquarium was fun. We spent more time there than we planned, making it late afternoon when we arrived at Hanauma Bay.
We plunged into the water and headed straight outside the reef. There, the first creature we saw was, of course, a spotted snake eel. It was slinking its way in and out of the rubble about 20 feet beneath us.
Gail took it well, but you can bet she was not one of the group to dive down for a closer look.
We were lucky (I thought) to see this usually hard-to-find creature because of our tardy arrival at the bay.
Spotted snake eels are mostly nocturnal, coming out in the late afternoon or early evening to sniff around the bottom for small fish and invertebrates.
Eels are common residents of Hawaiian reefs. But even though all eels are called puhi in Hawaiian, not all eels are alike.
In Hawaii, members of three eel families are the most commonly seen: conger and garden eels, moray eels and snake eels.
Of the snake eels, the spotted is the only one I've seen while snorkeling or diving. This was my second viewing.
The other was near Magic Island, a prime spot for the eels in the late afternoon.
Spotted snake eels are also called magnificent snake eels, a name that reflects their scientific one: Myrichthys magnificus. It's also descriptive of these true beauties.
Known as puhi laau in Hawaiian, individuals grow to about 3 feet long.
After the snake eel sighting, we swam back inside the reef. Gail wondered why so many fish seemed to be following her.
"They're used to being fed," I said.
"Oh? What do you feed them?"
"Wait here." I hurried to shore, bought some approved fish food at the concession stand, and returned to distribute the packets.
"What do we do now?" Gail asked.
"Just swim out a little way, tear open the package and sprinkle the food around," I said.
"Is it safe?"
"Sure," I said. "People do it all the time."
As Gail headed to a deeper spot, the biodegradable wrap on her fish food began to disintegrate in the water. At the same time, an enormous, aggressive chub (also called rudderfish or nenue) spotted the bag's puka in Gail's trailing hand, zoomed in for a snack and bit her thumb.
The injury was minor, and again, Gail was a good sport. Still, I felt terrible.
After that, I took her to a bookstore.