Do we have moray eels in North Carolina waters?

January 2007

Ask any diver and you’ll get a definite “Yes!”

Green morays are territorial and have been known to occupy the same reef for many years.

There are about 100 species of morays worldwide. The most common morays found in our waters are the green, spotted and reticulate.

These snaky-looking fish favor coral reefs, rocky areas, shipwrecks and other piles of rubble that offer good hiding places. The  largest living moray is found in the Pacific and measures some 11½ feet long.

A frequent eel sighting in our area is the green moray (Gymnothorax funebris), a bottom-dwelling, solitary species. Because of its large size, its bite can be particularly painful, however, unless provoked it poses little threat to humans.

Despite small eyes and bad vision, morays are nocturnal, relying primarily on their strong sense of smell to detect prey. Their camouflaged skin is thick and scaleless and covered with a protective mucous. Their bodies are almost all muscle, making them very strong.

Aside from their creepy appearance, eels look particularly fearsome because they constantly open and close their mouths. This is not threatening behavior. It’s to keep water circulating through the small circular gills located on the each side of their head behind their jaws. The wide jaws have long, sharp teeth for catching fish and eating mollusks, including octopus.

On average, morays measure about 5 feet long and have few predators. Large groupers are known to prey on them, and morays also prey on each other. In some cultures, they are a human food resource, but some species are toxic to humans.