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A "sea monster" not as bad as all that!

Many fear the moray eel, a fish with a snakelike and scaleless body, and specie of the Anguilliformes family. In effect, it is widely known to be aggressive, dangerous and above all, real ugly! All the same, the diversity of its coat is at times worth comparing with the most beautiful printed fabrics: speckled, tattooed, freckled, stripped… and complete with a large range of colours: chocolate brown, off white, black, sandy yellow and even, scarlet blue. As for its size, it varies considerably from 25 centimetres for the ribbon moray to approximately 3 metres for the giant moray!

picture of moray eel

Indeed, its huge head, dark eyes and concave teeth are enough to make it look menacing, yet the moray eel attacks only if it feels threatened. If it tries to bite an imprudent diver, it is only as a self-defense attack. Its bites are not venomous even if made to believe otherwise at times. However, some species can inoculate a toxin secreted by the buccal mucous membrane. In spite of all this, the moray eel has also some loyal friends: it maintains a commensal relationship with small shrimps and wrasses known as "cleaners". These guests, like a lively toothbrush, will clean off, and at the same time feed on, parasites and scraps of food from the moray’s mouth.

picture of giant moray eel with diver     picture of moray eel with cleaner wrass

Discreet and secret, the moray eel lives in tropical and warm seas, hidden in the rocky crevices and coral concretions, or within the various hideaways of a shipwreck, leaving only its pointed snout visible, with its mouth wide open, indeed not a very welcoming sight…

picture of giant moray eel in a wreck

It goes hunting especially at night, targeting with its keen sense of smell - which compensates for its poor eyesight - some weakened or dead fish, octopus, cuttlefish, squids and various other crustaceans; the importance of this necrophagous function is utmost, and, as such, our sea animal unknowingly plays a genuine ecological role in the proper balance of marine depths.
The breeding season will be accompanied by the laying of eggs and after fertilization, these will give birth to small and translucent larva, which drifting along with the current and the passing time, will take two years to become a grown up moray eel without any pectoral or pelvic fins adorning its body; only a slight excrescence will show the existence of a thin dorsal fin. And thus, like all marine animals, the young moray eel will set out to look for its own food, confront or flee before its enemies and eventually, reproduce.

picture of moray eel    picture of giant moray eel

If today, certain species of moray eels are highly prized as the main character of a "bouillabaisse" or as a grilled speciality, long ago, they were used to delight the guests of a Roman, Licinius Muraena (from whom they derive their name), who reared the moray eels either for sheer exhibition purposes or… to throw in some slaves as fodder. Ever since was born the legend that they were fierce predators who would not hesitate to attack divers.
This "beautiful monster" now only remains to be considered under a much more "lenient" light!

Text: © Valérie Claro   •   Photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra