Poor Knights marine reserve
awesome moray eels
by Dr J Floor Anthoni (2007)

Begin your study of the sea at the Seafriends home page or our sitemap. Find more about the Poor Knights.
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The five species of moray eel
The Poor Knights Islands enable you to see five species of moray eel, each with its own characteristics and personalities. New Zealand's moray eels are all subtropical species, not found further south than East Cape (Tauranga).

The yellow moray (Gymnothorax prasinus) is New Zealand's most common moray eel although it is not found in the South Island. It prefers coastal waters and is not as common on the outer islands like the Poor Knights. Its colour varies from yellow-green to yellow and yellow-brown with blue eyes. It is an inquisitive fish although not often seen in the open. The yellow moray can be approached and handled with some care, because it is not typically a biter. Moray eels appear to defend territories against other moray eels, but may be seen sharing a hole with other species of moray eel.

inquisitive yellow moray eel (Gymnothorax prasinus)
f045803: a yellow moray eel (Gymnothorax prasinus) fully exposed and inquisitively exploring the camera.
yellow moray eel (Gymnothorax prasinus)
f049724: close-up of a young yellow moray eel (Gymnothorax prasinus) shows its small head and teeth.
yellow moray eel (Gymnothorax prasinus)
f019323: close-up of the yellow moray.
spotted moray eel (Gymnothorax prionodon)
f021204: the spotted moray (Gymnothorax prionodon)  is very shy. It has a dark snout.
mosaic moray (Enchelycore ramosa)
f022536: the mosaic moray (Enchelycore ramosa) is the fiercest looking of all.

The grey moray eel (Gymnothorax nubilus) could be called the laughing moray because of its upturned mouth. It is a very inquisitive small eel that is often found in the open by day, clambering into seaweeds. It is greenish-grey in colour, the smallest of New Zealand's moray eels, and has a distinguishing tall dorsal fin. It can easily be approached, and although it is not a biter, it will give a nip out of curiosity, after which it visibly 'apologises'. Once that has happened, it can be approached easily. An important tip is not to pull one's hand back, which is an instinctive reflex, but to yield instead. Then the eel will let go without causing lacerations. At worst one can end up with a few pin holes in one's fingers.

grey moray eel (Gymnothorax nubilus)
f009017: closeup of a grey moray eel (Gymnothorax nubilus). Notice its white eye with a horizontal black stripe.
grey moray eel (Gymnothorax nubilus)
f020505: a grey moray eel (Gymnothorax nubilus) entirely in the open. Notice its tall backfin.
grey moray eel (Gymnothorax nubilus) in stalked kelp
f042705: a grey moray eel in a stalked kelp bush. These small eels are often found in seaweeds.
spotted moray eel (Gymnothorax prionodon)
f021205: a spotted moray eel (Gymnothorax prionodon) is difficult to photograph.

The spotted moray (Gymnothorax prionodon) is rather rare, also at the Poor Knights, but it is more common further north at the Cavalli Islands. The spots on this moray are often clear white, which suggests that it is able to change its colour somewhat. It has a dark snout. The spotted moray is very shy and difficult to photograph. It won't let itself be handled.

The mosaic moray (Enchelycore ramosa) is the most dramatic of all, because of its size and sharp fangs. It has teeth even in the roof of its mouth, reason why it is unable to close its mouth. However, its fearsome appearance belies its nature, as it is not a biter and can be approached with a lot of patience. It is a big and very strong eel.

mosaic moray (Enchelycore ramosa)
f030516: a mosaic moray (Enchelycore ramosa) is long and strong, and its fearsome head is but a small part of the whole.
mosaic moray (Enchelycore ramosa)
f033010: closeup of the head of a mosaic moray (Enchelycore ramosa). Note how close its eyes are to its mouth.
mosaic moray (Enchelycore ramosa)
f032915: the mosaic moray can also be inquisitive, once it has overcome its fears.
a mosaic moray and a yellow moray
f033011: a mosaic moray and a yellow moray, sharing the same hole and perhaps enjoying each other's company.

The speckled or mottled moray (Gymnothorax obesus) is also a strong moray eel with a short stocky snout and very strong jaws. I haven't dared play with this one yet, as it appears to be a biter but is very shy. It is rarely found along the coast. Speckled morays behave aggressively towards each other, and are perhaps territorial.

speckled moray (Gymnothorax obesus)
f051124: a speckled moray (Gymnothorax obesus) in the open, not keen to examine the photographer.
speckled moray (Gymnothorax obesus)
f038014: closeup of an old speckled moray (Gymnothorax obesus).

meeting a grey moray eel
f020313: meeting a grey moray eel. The grey moray soon decides to sniff and bite your finger, after which it loses all fear.
meeting a mosaic moray
f030515: meeting a mosaic moray takes much patience before it comes to sniff at one's finger. It does so with a lot of attention, while staying wary.