This beautiful, blue-gray, four-foot-long eel is actually very common in shallow water here in Hawai‘i, but they are rarely ever seen by divers.
Within the last few days people have been finding them up on the beach because they were washed out of their shallow, tide-pool homes by the recent flooding. This large eel hunts fish at night, and they can be found in less than three feet of water right in a tide pool. The fresh water and mud from the flooding can wash them out of their tide-pool home right up onto the beach.
Puhi uha is not a moray eel, but it is a type of garden eel even though it has the same Hawaiian name as the moray eels. The conger eel has tiny teeth and two little pectoral fins that look like comical ears, and when I see them out cruising around at night they look like cartoon characters. They have a beautiful dorsal fin down their back that undulates when they swim, and looks like a sail on a boat during a strong wind. They are just beautiful to watch as they hunt sleeping fish on the reef, and at my favorite night-dives sites they same puhi uha follows me around as it catches the fish that are blinded by my dive light.
Sometimes when I take people out on a night snorkel in very-shallow water to see the octopus and crabs we will have a four-foot eel tag along on the snorkel just a few feet below us, and that often makes people quite nervous.
Puhi uha has played an important role in old Hawaiian culture, as it was sacred and could only be eaten by the ali‘i, or ruling class. It was often referred to as a white eel because when you take it out of the tide pool it turns almost pure white. Unlike most moray eels, the conger won’t bite, and is super tame and fun to dive with.
You can see puhi uha in action in the video “The World’s Guide To Hawaiian Reef Fish” on the underwater educational web page underwater2web, and also see many updated eel pics and videos on my Facebook and Instagram just under my name.
Terry Lilley is a marine biologist living in Hanalei 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 Hawai‘i go to www.reefguardianshawaii.org.
Source: The Garden Island