There are predators on the reef in abundance; it’s a real fish-eat-fish world. On this reef we do not see a lot of sharks, and the common apex predators are the grouper, snapper, barracuda and the like. Although not really dangerous, a hundred plus pound grouper or large barracuda is an imposing sight, but everybody usually keeps their distance, and 250 lbs. of diver and gear can’t look that appetizing.
Then you add Lionfish. When the lionfish invasion hit the waters of Roatan, we fought back by going out and spearing the little devils. In the beginning they were so small and difficult to deal with that we would just leave them behind, as certainly “something” would eat them. The next surprise came for me when on a dive at the El Aguila; I rose up my spear to show my buddy a nice big one I just stabbed. There was a jerk on the spear and I looked up to see a monster grouper chewing on my lionfish. We started feeding them to the groupers, snappers, queen triggerfish and such. It was great fun, and then the snappers started to follow divers carrying spears expecting a fish treat. We thought we were training the fish to help, but now they are starting to be annoying at times, which is why you should never feed the bears.
The nastiest, evilest looking predator on the coral reef is the moray eel. Often mistakenly identified as the “Green” Moray, it is a brown eel six to eight feet long, four to seven inches in diameter, weighing in at 30 to 60 lbs., with an aggressive looking business end, all wrapped up in a green coat, the color of a can of 7up.The color of this albeit uniformly brown eel is actually a layer of yellow mucus that the eel secretes as protection from diseases and parasites. They are usually nocturnal hunters, noted for their bad eyesight, they hunt by smell. Sometimes they can be spotted out “free swimming” during the day, and on rare occasions they have been seen “team” hunting side by side with the larger fish species, like the grouper.
Besides the all too apparent snaggely teeth, the Moray eels have another unseen and underappreciated weapon in their arsenal, a pharyngeal jaw. The moray bites its prey with its outer jaws and teeth which are angled inward to prevent an escaping meal, then like some science fiction horror scene a second set of jaws comes up out of the eels throat, grabs dinner and pulls it down into the eel's esophagus! Don’t feed the bears! (Link not for the squeamish).
I’ve been diving for about twenty years now, and I have seen and been around a lot of moray eels in that time. Although they look intimidating, mostly we see the eels sticking their heads out of a hole in the reef a foot or so, swaying back and forth, slowly opening and closing their mouths, perhaps scenting for prey. Seeing them out and about is a treat as they gracefully swim amongst corals with their striking green color. In my experience they have never approached divers, or have been aggressive in any way, until the other day… (I think somebody has been feeding the bears).
I have been accompanying Mickey Charteris on an ongoing photo shoot of his documentation of the coral’s recovery from this last year’s bleaching event. (Future BLOG) It is a nice dive at the site Seaquest, and I follow Mickey around the ten or so coral samples being documented with my spear looking for lionfish and generally being a dive buddy. Although an amazing place to dive, after a dozen trips to the same coral heads in as many weeks, there are times during the dive when you give in to the whole Zen-like experience and your mind wanders.
Wearing a scuba mask brings the underwater world into sharp clear focus, but it has a downside in the fact that the glass of the mask has to be in front of your face enough to get past your nose, and all the space on the sides has to be filled in totally depriving you of your peripheral vision. Scuba divers see the underwater world as though looking through a small box a couple of inches long.
After the latest photo shoot, we are swimming slowly back to the boat just looking around and enjoying the peace and serenity of being away from the shop. We are at a depth of about 30 feet, and as Mickey and I can be a little lax on buddy rules at times, I start looking around to see where he was. A slight turn of my head and the way is blocked by green skin, and a cataractic eye inches from mask!
Instantaneously a good cup and a half of adrenaline hit my system and evasive maneuvers ensued in earnest. Spinning to the side I managed to get my feet between the eel and myself, and commenced breaking underwater speed records. With the panicked kicking of my fins the eel, actually looking a little indignant, swam off in an ever expanding circle and finally disappeared. On the boat Mickey (the photographer) tells me how the eel was swimming along between my legs, and smelling my hands for a few minutes before I noticed it! (No picture).
Once in twenty years, and something to put in the log book, but we’ll save it for after-dive beers, not dwell on it, and get on with the diving life.
The very next dive find Mickey and myself out in the hunting grounds of “Deep in the harta Texas” dive site, he with his camera and me with my spear killing some Lionfish. It’s getting toward the end of the dive as we are running out of bottom time when Mickey spots something really small, and hunkers down in the sand to get some kind of macro shot. Being a good buddy I hover and wait looking around to see if I can spot another Lionfish to add to the half a dozen dead and dying ones I have in my critter bucket. Looking over to see what is keeping us, Mickey points down in front of him by his camera. He knows I can’t see the little stuff even with my bifocals, so I give him the international sign for small organisms, a finger alongside of the nose (sea-booger), and waved him off. He shakes his head, points at me, and then points down. Oh! Me look down! So I did.
This is getting old, but not boring! No doubt attracted by the scent of Lionfish blood leaking out of my bucket, this eel is pretty set on finding something to eat. It is coming in at my waist when I see it and start back pedaling like a fool trying to get away, while frantically working to disconnect the fish bucket and leave the damn thing behind as a peace offering. Just like a zipper in an emergency, my big ol’ easy to grab carabineer wasn’t turning loose of that bucket, and I really want to give it away! On comes the eel following the blood trail I am leaving in the water and constantly gaining on me. It’s time for action; I turn my spear around, and tap the oncoming predator on the nose.
It wasn’t a hard tap really, with the blunt end, and although I meant a little offence, it was all in the cause of personal safety, but that eel stopped in its tracks, looked at me like I was the lowest rung on the evolutionary ladder, and swam off.
Please don’t feed the bears.