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The Wolf Eel: The Old Man of the Sea

Monday 27 May 2019

Picture one of those double-take moments when you have to look again in a mixture of curiosity and alarm. Then imagine that you are thirty meters underwater when that happens. Over the years, divers off the coast of California have had many such moments when they suddenly come across the huge face of an old man peering at them from the rocky reefs below. Yet this is not anything approaching a subaquatic nightmare: it is the face of an extraordinary creature, the wolf eel.

A first reaction might be to swim away from this frightening spectacle as quickly as possible. Yet this particular book should not be judged by its cover. Although the wolf eel looks scary – and odd – it poses little danger to humans. In fact, the wolf eel has a friendly and gregarious nature and will often take food from divers. It is as curious about us and we are about it. The only recorded injuries to humans have happened when it has been taken out of the water when it knows it is battling for its life.

You may already have guessed that this is not a true eel. Although an adult wolf eel may grow up to eight feet in length and has an eel-like appearance it belongs to the wolf fish family – and it is not difficult to see where that name came from. That face, those jaws – together they do give this animal a rather lupine appearance even though they could hardly be more different creatures.

The wolf eel will feed on a variety of animals but the favorite food of the wolf eel is the sea urchin. This is where over the millennia it has evolved to make its feeding proclivities much less of a chore not to mention a danger to itself. Those huge jaws, containing canines and molars which could easily crunch human bone can devour a sea urchin in a matter of moments. It even has a throat which is scattered with serrated teeth to help getting the sea urchin in to its stomach.

Yet despite its creepy appearance the wolf eel is a gentle creature when not on the hunt. It prefers to live in natural crevices in the rock on the sea floor and is something of a home body. A wolf eel will call one place home for many years and are very territorial. However, when the right mate comes along they will gladly share the space – and the food.

Instead of actively hunting wolf eels wait for dinner to come to them. This is where the rocky crevices in which they live are so useful. They can squeeze their long and slender bodies in to these gaps between the rocks until their giant length is completely hidden. Then they strike when food arrives at their doorstep. It’s not a brilliant metaphor but it would be the equivalent of us living on takeaway for the rest of our lives but making dinner out of the delivery man.

Although their numbers are not known it is assumed that the wolf eel is in decline – partly because despite their appearance they taste very good. In fact, historically the wolf fish was reserved for the healers of the tribes which lived along the coast of the northwest Pacific. We can only hope that this gentle animal manages to weather the human storm and will one day thrive in its rocky homes once again.

Although these pictures go some way to show how unusual and intelligent the wolf eel is there is nothing quite like the moving image. Twyla Roscovich, an independent filmmaker who specializes in in wildlife, first nations, marine, underwater, environmental and documentary films has made this marvelous short about the wolf eel which really captures both this amazing undersea creature extremely well.

First Image Credit Flickr User Ed Bierman

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