Moray Eel Canoodles With Diver in Amazing Video

spotted-moray-shedd
A spotted moray eel, Gymnothorax moringa. Shedd Aquarium/Ed Lines

When Valerie Taylor first located the home of a spotted moray eel near Banda Island, Indonesia, the famed Australian diver and ocean conservationist tried to befriend the eel by offering it a fish. The eel did what eels usually do when humans approach: It hid. Taylor tried a few more times over the course of several years, to no avail.

One day, things changed. Taylor brought a fish, again. But this time, the eel came out and slithered around Taylor, accepting her piscine offering. Ever since, the six-foot long, brown-spotted eel—which Taylor dubbed "Honey"—has seemed to recognize and approach her, and according to the diver seems to enjoy being held and even scratched.

"We have become great friends," Taylor said in a video posted online recently by the Central Florida Aquarium Society. "And now when she sees me coming—and I might not see her for a year, once I didn't see her for three years—this thing comes out across the sand and swims over to me."

Taylor first met the eel in 1974 and the video was filmed an unknown number of years ago, likely in the 1990s. According to the site Wide Open Spaces, Taylor rarely dives anymore. But this awesome video remains:

Curious about how strange or unusual this behavior was, Newsweek spoke to George Parsons, an expert on many marine species who works for the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

"It's pretty impressive, that's for sure," Parsons said of the video, though he was reticent to say that the eel was showing "affection."

"Whether or not that's the case, that's difficult to say," he says. "Generally they are pretty shy [and] in the wild you hardly ever see these guys out."

Parsons says he has seen different types of moray eels in the Caribbean interact with divers who return often, and like other animals they grow less shy as they become accustomed to people who come around a lot. They also tend to be curious animals, and like to "check things out," he says, which is what appears to be happening in this video.

Taylor and her late husband Ron are known as long-time champions of the ocean. Taylor, who is now in her late seventies, has been scuba diving her whole life.

Although eels aren't generally aggressive unless their territory is invaded, feeding eels is not a good idea, Parsons says. When Shedd Aquarium staff conduct work and research in the wild, they don't feed the animals, lest they "develop bad habits." In the aquarium when they feed morays—of which they have several species—they use tongs to offer fish.

That's because moray eels have razor-sharp teeth, and not the best eyesight. They also possess a second set of jaws that normally lingers in the animal's gullet, but when feeding can project forward and pull food inward, like something out of the movie Alien. These pharyngeal jaws are illustrated in this National Geographic video, at 0:40.

Occasionally, feeding a wild moray eel has resulted in accidents, such as one case where a man got his thumb bitten off by a moray.

Spotted morays (Gymnothorax moringa) can probably live about 25 to 40 years, "although not much is known about their longevity in the wild," says Parsons, who notes that researchers are also just beginning to learn about morays' cognitive abilities. "Through enrichment studies and positive reinforcement training, scientists and aquarists are beginning to see that these animals are very intelligent and can retain skills for many months," he says.

As to whether or not "Honey" could recognize Taylor, Parsons says it doesn't surprise him that an eel would recognize a diver over the years without any other external stimuli. "But then again Valerie Taylor has been diving and documenting the ocean for many years. It would seem fitting that such a famous ocean conservation spokesperson would elicit a paparazzi response."

Moray Eel Canoodles With Diver in Amazing Video | Tech & Science