Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, February 15, 1999

Snake eels masquerade
as fearsome sea snakes

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a yellow-bellied sea snake found on a Maui beach recently. These snakes are quite rare in the islands, apparently drifting here from the south on unusual currents. The yellow-bellied sea snake is the only species ever reported in Hawaiian waters.

When I wished we could have one or two of these beauties in an aquarium so lots of people could see them, Waikiki Aquarium Director Bruce Carlson wrote:

"The January 4, 1984, edition of the Star-Bulletin reported on several sea snakes captured in Hawaii and displayed here at the Waikiki Aquarium. The first snake was obtained in October 1982 and survived three years. During that time, nearly 500,000 visitors to the aquarium had an opportunity to see and appreciate these rarely observed animals.

"Other sea snakes were reported that same year but they were quickly dispatched by well-meaning residents.

"If you find a sea snake, don't handle it and don't kill it. Call the Waikiki Aquarium and we will find a secure home for it here where everyone can appreciate it."

My sea snake story brought other comments. Another reader wrote: "In May of '92, I was wading in the crystal-clear water in front of the Waikikian Hotel when I saw what I thought was an eel making its way toward me. Stooping down to enjoy the encounter, I soon realized it wasn't an eel at all.

"It was about 20 inches long, and bluish-white with black bands. Its tail was not noticeably flattened and when I saw it flicking its tongue out, I knew it was a sea snake! It came right up to me and then went right down under the sand and disappeared. The snake looked and acted perfectly healthy."

Because the number of possibilities is vast in the ocean, I never tell anyone that they couldn't have seen what they thought they saw. However, this description sounds more like a snake eel than a sea snake.

Snake eels are a group of eels that resemble snakes but, like morays, are actually fish with gills. Snake eels can bite if you corner or surprise one, but unlike sea snakes, snake eels deliver no venom.

Snake eels typically live in sand burrows, sometimes made by the creatures wiggling backwards on their stiff, rounded tails.

ONCE in their burrows, snake eels raise their heads a few inches above the sand, lying in wait for small fish or invertebrates to pass within striking range. Occasionally, a diver skimming over the sand, or resting on it to take a photo, gets bitten by one of these semi-buried eels.

Hawaii is home to at least 16 species of snake eels, each bearing its own pattern of spots, bars and bands on whitish, cylindrical bodies. One of the more common ones in Hawaii is the magnificent snake eel, a nocturnal species that ventures out in the late afternoon to poke around the reef and ocean floor. This species is bluish-white with dark spots and grows up to 30 inches long.

I have seen snake eels several times and admit they look remarkably like snakes.

Once, while I was scuba diving off Magic Island, a snake eel frightened my dive partner so severely she used up all her air in minutes, burst to the surface, then had to snorkel a long way home.

Last year, a lifeguard showed me a living white "snake" about a foot long he had found on Ala Moana Beach. I took it to the Waikiki Aquarium where biologists identified it as an immature crocodile snake eel.

As for tongues flicking in and out? Well, eels don't have tongues that flick -- but some snakes do. Hmmm. ...

If you find a snakelike creature on a beach, don't automatically bash its head in. Call the aquarium so biologists can identify it and the rest of us can see it, too.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at honu@aloha.net.

E-mail to City Desk

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
[Stylebook] [Feedback]

© 1999 Honolulu Star-Bulletin