eels in hawaii

Eels in Hawaii: A Fascinating Encounter in Coastal Waters


Hawaii’s coastal waters are home to a diverse array of marine life, and among its intriguing inhabitants are the eels of Hawaii. With approximately 38 different types of eels gracing the ledges and crevices, these elusive creatures add an air of mystery to the underwater world. In this article, we delve into the captivating world of Hawaiian eels, exploring their various species, cultural significance, and unique behaviors that make encountering them a thrilling experience for snorkelers and marine enthusiasts.

The Hawaiian Eels: Puhi and Aumakua

In Hawaiian culture, eels are known as “Puhi” and hold a special place as aumakua – powerful spirit beings connected to a family’s ancestors. Considered guardian spirits, the eels are revered and respected, adding a spiritual dimension to their presence in Hawaii’s coastal waters.

A Shy and Near-Sighted Species

Hawaiian eels are known for their shy and cautious behavior towards humans. When snorkelers approach, these creatures may be observed opening and closing their mouths, which might appear threatening, but in reality, they are merely breathing by passing water through their gills. To ensure eel safety, it is advised not to place hands in holes or crevices in rocks or reefs, especially when visibility is poor, as eel bites are rare but can occur if this precaution is not taken.

With extremely poor vision, eels rely heavily on their sense of smell for hunting food. Their favorite delicacy includes octopuses, but these intelligent cephalopods have a unique defense mechanism – the ability to spray ink when feeling threatened. This action confuses the near-blind eels and momentarily disrupts their sense of smell, allowing the octopus a chance to escape.

Solo and Cooperative Hunters

Most eels are solitary hunters and are most active during the night. However, some fascinating exceptions have been observed – cooperative hunting during the day. Eels have been spotted teaming up with grouper, jacks, goatfish, and even reef sharks for hunting expeditions. Such interactions showcase the complex and interconnected ecosystem of Hawaii’s coastal waters.

A memorable example involved witnessing a Yellowmargin Moray swimming alongside a large Ulua (Giant Trevally) and a smaller White Tip Reef Shark. In a remarkable display of teamwork, the eel ventured into an octopus hole, prompting the octopus to attempt an escape from the backside. At that moment, the white tip reef shark seized the opportunity and tore the octopus to shreds while the ulua and eel collected the remaining pieces. Witnessing such a powerful and coordinated effort of these marine species left a lasting impression on the observers.

Encounter with Hawaiian Eels

A chance encounter with an eel while snorkeling with Kai Kanani is an exhilarating experience. Snorkelers are advised not to pet or feed these creatures, as it may lead to unintended consequences. Instead, capturing photos of these eels is encouraged, as they exhibit a beautiful array of colors. The assistance of a naturalist can help identify the specific eel species, adding to the wonder of the encounter.


The eels of Hawaii bring a sense of wonder and mystery to the coastal waters, representing a harmonious blend of cultural significance and natural beauty. Their shy and near-sighted nature adds to their allure, while their cooperative hunting behaviors offer fascinating glimpses into the intricacies of marine life. Encountering these remarkable creatures while snorkeling is a reminder of the rich biodiversity that thrives beneath the waves of Hawaii’s enchanting seas.