The California Moray Eel

It is reaching the end of your orientation snorkel on day one of your field trip to CIMI and your instructor dives down one last time before exiting the rocky reef structure of Pinnacle rock. As you watch his luscious blonde locks flowing underwater, you realize that he isn’t attempting a subsurface dance move, he is frantically signaling toward a giant, terrifying, green head looming from the darkness of a crevasse. The organism has incredibly sharp teeth and seems to have a problem keeping its mouth shut. Although you may think you are looking at a scene from Alien vs. Predator, you are actually looking at a California Moray Eel (Gymnothorax mordax).

The California moray eel is relatively common in our Channel Island’s shallow rocky reef habitats; however, they range from as north as Point Conception and as south as Baja California. They tend to conceal their entire bodies between rocks while peaking their heads out to stay aware of potential predators and prey. How aware are they? Well, like most eels, these morays have awful eyesight that does not significantly contribute to their hunting capabilities. CA moray eels are nocturnal ambush predators and rely on acute chemosensory organs (nares) to detect their prey. Common snacks include crabs and crustaceans, small fish and surprisingly, octopuses.

Although CA moray eels look like an alien creature, they are much more familiar than the appear. They are part of the taxidermic classification Osteichthyes or “bony fish” along with other beloved bony fish like the garibaldi. The reason these eels look so foreign is because they lack scales, a gill cover and both pelvic and pectoral fins. CA Morays are different from their relatives through an adaptation that allows a second set of jaws (pharyngeal jaw) to extrude from the back of their throat and pull their meal further into their mouths after the initial bite. The thought of this is so terrifying that it inspired Ridley Scott to model an extraterrestrial being after it in his movie Alien. Our worldly aliens can grow up to five feet in length at around 30 years of age.

The moral of the disgustingly horrifying California moray eel is that they are truly misunderstood. These organisms are extremely unique and are so ugly they’re cute, so next time you see this green slimy friend stashed in a crevasse blow them a kiss or better yet, sing them a song!

The California Moray Eel Fact Sheet

The California moray eel – Gymnothorax mordax

Movie Alien?

Our moray eels live in shallow rocky reef habitats from Point Conception down to southern Baja California.

Although California moray eels may not look like fish with their lack of scales, apparent fins and an operculum, moray eels are part of the Osteichthyes (bony fish) taxonomic group.

The moray is thought to have a life span of up to 30 years and possibly longer.

Moray eels have adapted a second set of jaws that extrudes from the back of their throat to pull their meal further into their mouths after the initial bite.

Being an ambush predator can be difficult when nearly blind, however, these eels have an excellent sense of smell that allows them to pin point prey.