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Puhi the tiger moray eel doesn’t have stripes

This is a really rare and secretive, three-foot-long moray eel that lives throughout the tropical Pacific Ocean, but Hawai‘i is where it is most commonly seen. It’s Hawaiian name is “puhi,” and here on Kaua‘i there is a city named for the moray eels.

What makes the tiger moray so unusual is it eats other moray eels by swallowing them whole like a snake does on land. Certain snake species like the cobra eat other snakes, and they only live in areas where there are a lot of snakes available for food. Same with the tiger moray, as it can only live in areas where there are lots of other moray eels to eat. The tiger moray feeds at night time, and after 3,000 dives I have done in the Pacific Ocean I have only seen three of these rare puhi, and they were all in waters off Kaua‘i.

Hawai‘i is a very unique marine ecosystem because we are so isolated. We do not have the diversity of reef creatures like they have in Palau or the Philippines because fish had to somehow travel over 2,000 miles to get to Hawai‘i to begin with. Most of our fish more then likely floated here on currents as tiny larvae that may have been caught in large storms.

We do not have any large native grouper fish here in Hawai‘i except a few that were discovered in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The large groupers feed on young moray eels, so in Palau, the Philippines and Indonesia there are not as many moray eels as we have here in Hawai‘i. On an average dive in Palau I see one or often no moray eels and lots of grouper, but here in Hawai‘i I often see five to 10 moray eels. So here in Hawai‘i the tiger moray has lots of food to eat and is more common.

Why is this puhi called a “tiger moray” when it does not have stripes like a tiger does? If you go back 100 years to when this eel was first classified, all big jungle cats were called tigers, including leopards. So if this moray eel was discovered only 50 years ago it would more then likely be named a “leopard moray eel.”

See the tiger moray eel in action in the underwater educational video “The World’s Guide to Hawaiian Reef Fish” at In the plans is an online marine-science educational series at

Aloha from under the surf.


Terry Lilley, a marine biologist, lives in Hanalei. His websites include and
Source: The Garden Island

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