The moray eel has a double set of jaws on it which are very similar to that portrayed in the movie ‘alien’....

Undulate Moray Eel

The moray eel may look like a snake; it is in fact a fish. It has two holes just behind its head which are its gills. Those who have seen a moray will have noticed they most often have their mouth open in a seemingly aggressive posture. Whilst this may have some part to play in assuming an aggressive or warning display, the main reason is to allow a constant stream of water to flow through its mouth and gills to breathe.

Honeycomb moray eel

Some morays will grow as long as 3 meters long and a girth of up to 30cm – very big!

Most often a moray will be seen in its usual habitat which is inside a hole in the reef, often with smaller fish like ‘cleaner wrasse’ fussing around cleaning parasites off their skin and gills. Other small fish live close to the moray eel to feed off the scraps of a moray’s prey.

The Eel feeds mainly on fish, crustaceans and sometimes octopus.

Morays have very poor eyesight but exceptionally good sense of smell which aids them in hunting their prey – hunting mostly at night. They are fast swimmers and need to be treated with caution as they can be quite aggressive when they feel threatened.

Diagram showing Morays double jaw

This kind of eel has two sets of jaws – the main set (obviously!) and a second set of jaws located in the oesophagus. The front jaws seize the prey and as they do so, the second jaws (pharyngeal jaws) move very rapidly forward to seize the food and draw it down the throat. The teeth in the rear jaw are hooked to enable the jaw to grip the meat and pull it down the throat.

Moray eel bite - the hazards....

Without going into too much detail, morays often have a poisonous bite although generally not too serious, the skin of the moray produces a poison called a crinotoxin which is in the mucous membranes of their mouths. Most of what these poisons do is to increase the bleeding and pain from a bite.

Generally it isn’t advisable to handle morays, particularly when they are bleeding as their blood contains proteins (ichthyotoxins) which are harmful to man – so will cause you a problem if they get into your eyes, mouth or cuts on your hands.
. As with a lot of fish they also build up the toxins, from fish they have eaten, in their own flesh so their meat can be toxic. The rule of thumb is the bigger the moray eel the longer it has eaten poisonous prey and therefore the more poison it has accumulated within its own flesh.

Whilst a bite from a moray eel isn’t dangerous in itself (meaning life threatening) - it is extremely painful, the secondary infections you can suffer from can be a serious threat to your health. There is a significant amount of bacteria present inside the mouth of a moray eel which is where the secondary infection comes in.

All in all – be careful of morays, definitely don’t annoy them and when you are drifting along underwater – generally minding your own business at a nice even level – be careful where you put your hands.......
I have had a couple of close calls where I came very up close and personal with a moray because I wasn’t watching, ambling along, just taking undersea photos..... once on a dive on the Thistlegorm wreck in the Red sea I got quite a shock, the moray was enormous! (no pictures I am afraid).

I have heard of a moray eel on one of the reefs off the coast of Sodwana in South Africa which was/is a particularly habituated eel through being fed. It apparently gets really friendly and swims in amongst your gear....

I would say this is a particular hazard to some hapless diver who wouldn’t be aware of this eel who was likely to come looking for a snack.... you can imagine

I have inserted some of my scuba diving photos showing morays below.

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