Every year I dread October. Images of ghosts and goblins abound. People share scary stories, and pranksters just love trying to scare you, and I don't like to be scared.
I admit these things frighten me, and I used to be afraid of a lot more. I was terrified by the ocean and of all the sea creatures living in it. But the more I learned about the animals I was afraid of, pretty soon my fear turned into fascination.
One creature that gives most folks the willies is the moray eel. The eels may seem a little scary, but are also one of the ocean's most fascinating animals. In Hawaii, there are 42 species of moray eels, which makes them the second-most abundant shore fish in Hawaiian waters.
Moray eels lack scales and gill coverings. Because they do not have gill coverings to force water over their gills like other fish, they must constantly open and close their mouth to breathe.
KELSEY DAIMON photo
Moray eels differ from other fish in that they do not have pelvic or pectoral fins. Instead, a caudal, or tail fin, is connected to their dorsal and anal fins, giving them the snakelike appearance. which some people may find scary or creepy.
Moray eels lack scales and gill coverings. Because they do not have gill coverings to force water over their gills like other fish, they must constantly open and close their mouth to breathe. Their open mouths appear ready to bite whatever comes their way, but don't be scared - it's just them breathing.
There have been reports of people being injured by eels, but in most cases it is a diver who has accidentally stuck his hand into a hole or crevice, and the eel mistakes it for a prey item like an octopus. A safe practice to follow whenever diving or snorkeling the reef is to keep your hands out of crevices and holes. Eels inhabit such places are can be protective of their homes.
Another unique feature of moray eels is they have two sets of jaws. The first set of jaws grabs the food, and the second set of jaws spring into action pulling the food back into their throat, helping them to swallow their prey.
Some moray eels, like the often-seen Whitemouth moray, have fang-like teeth. Others, like the Snowflake moray, have molarlike or pebblelike teeth to feed on crabs.
A fish that looks like a snake, has a gaping mouth full of sharp teeth and two sets of jaws sounds pretty scary. But once you realize how unique and interesting the moray eel is, it's hard to be afraid of these amazing creatures.
* Eden Zang is an ocean naturalist and aquarist in the education and curatorial departments at the Maui Ocean Center. "Ka Mo'olelo Moana," or "the Ocean Story," is a monthly column submitted by the Maui Ocean Center, which is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in Maalaea. For more information, call 270-7000.