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CRITTER: Meet puhi uha the conger eel

The conger eel grows to be about four foot long and they have tiny teeth, compared to the moray eels which usually have large sharp teeth. All types of eels in Hawaii have the general name of puhi but puhi uha has two small pectoral fins that the moray eels lack. The conger eel lives in shallow water and comes out at night time and they look like some kind of cartoon character!

Puhi uha is very beautiful to watch as you can see them in only three feet deep of water where they hunt for sleeping fish. They undulate using their long dorsal and anal fins and they look much like a large snake crawling through tall grass. They are long and thin so they can get way back in the holes and cracks in the reef where the fish at nighttime sleep. When they catch a small fish they turn it around in their mouth and swallow it whole head first much like a snake eating a mouse. Sometimes on an hour-long snorkel at night I will see three to four of these beautiful eels out hunting. A good place to see them is at Sharks Cove on Oahu and Anini Beach in Kauai along the north shore in the summer when the waves are flat.

Puhi uha is not afraid of divers and they actually follow divers around at night looking for an easy meal. These eels have learned that our dive lights blind the small sleeping reef fish and the conger eel has learned to take advantage of this. The eels are attracted to the divers light and will follow the diver until the bright light is pointed at a small fish then the eel will zoom in and grab it while it is blinded by the light!

Conger eels learning to hunt with humans is not new to them. Many eel species co hunt with other fish. Often you will see a roi (peacock grouper) or omilu (bluefin trevally) hunting with a large eel. The roi and omilu will hunt above the reef and right below puhi will hunt in the cracks and caves of the reef. Sometimes the eel will scare a small fish out of its hiding place and the predators above will grab it. At times the roi or omilu will scare a fish into the reef to hide and the awaiting eel will grab it.

You can see puhi uha in action in my movie Night Dive Hawaii that is up on my YouTube Channel at Underwater2web.

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Terry Lilley is a marine biologist living in Hanalei Kaua‘i and co-founder of Reef Guardians Hawai‘i, a nonprofit on a mission to provide education and resources to protect the coral reef. To donate to Reef Guardians Hawaii go to www.reefguardianshawaii.org.
Source: The Garden Island

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