Dan, the young divemaster, set us up with weights and tanks for the required checkout dive, running through the park rules as he worked. The checkout dive was one of the rules. Taking coral or spearfishing outside permitted areas was against the rules; feeding fish was most definitely against the rules.
“Some idiot started feeding the moray eels hot dogs,” he said, swinging a tank to me. I pretended not to stumble when I caught it.
“Some idiot.” He was half my age and naked except for a pair of ratty swim shorts. “They’re myopic, the eels,” he added. “They can’t tell the difference between your finger and an octopus tentacle and a hot dog. A woman had half her finger bitten off last year.” He paused. “Don’t be stuuupppid.”
I learned to dive in chill, dim Puget Sound, and promptly gave up on cold water. I had never dived in warm water or been to a subtropical island, except for Hawaii, where I went snorkeling for the first time and was seized with the need to go below, to stay down there. And Bonaire was a fever dream of a desert island, a tilting tabletop barely out of the sea. In the north, the narrow interior is scrub and cactus and tikitiki trees pointing to the southwest with the eternal wind. The arid land is filled with birds, wild donkeys, goats, and iguanas six feet long. The small towns in the center are sun scorched and still; the people are mostly African by descent, with Arawak and Spanish and Dutch and Portuguese mixed in. The south is salt flats, towering white cones lining the road beside giant loaders and pink evaporation ponds; twinkling crystalline drifts of salt powder float across the highway like low fog. A row of tiny slave huts is protected as a memorial, the size of dog houses and hot as saunas. A large flock of pink flamingos lives in the south. They step daintily through the shallows on silly delicate legs, turning their big heads completely upside down to feed on tiny shrimp. The birds chatter constantly, cho-go-go, go-go, the sound mixing with the wind, cho-go-go, go-go, cho-go, like gossip or the mild chronic complaints of old aunts. Sometimes they fly to Venezuela, fifty miles away—the flock rising at twilight all at once like a vapor flashing flame in the last light.
Sand and scraped sky above the waves; below, an immense work of eons. The naturalist William Beebe said of the coral reef, “No opium dream can compare.” The reef looks like the rumpled ruins of a great city, slumped boulders and bushes and pillars and branches cascading down and down, an architecture that is truly stone—the skeletons of tiny animals piled one atop another. I was a novice diver and a complete tyro on the reef. After a few days of barely coherent dives, I began to learn names: tilefish, wrasse, moon jelly, lugworm, overgrowing mat tunicate, southern sennet, whitespotted toadfish, honeycomb cowfish, porgy, the tiny scrawled filefish hiding in a gorgonian like a shivering leaf. I learned the names of things, but that is not the same as knowing the things one can name.
On the second day, I saw my first eel. Dan pointed to a rough rock near an overhang and I paddled over in stupefied and clumsy strokes. The big head, the jaws working—a green moray, all muscle and velvet.
Family Muraenidae in the order Anguilliformes. Hundreds of species of moray eels all created on the fifth day, if Genesis is to be believed. They are brown, green, ivory, gray, yellow, orange, black, and neon blue, and all these in combination: speckled, spotted, polka-dotted, striped, tessellated, piebald, brindle. A couple of the species are two-toned like saddle shoes. Morays live in every tropical and temperate sea, mostly in shallow water. They make dens in caves and crevices and holes in rocks; some live in hollowed-out burrows in the sand, mixing mucus and grains of sand into cement. They live alone, wolves sharing out the territory. The redface eel in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans is eight inches long at maturity; the slender giant moray in the Indian and the Pacific can reach twelve feet. A study in Hawaii found that up to 46 percent of the carnivorous biomass on the reef was moray.
They are fish but don’t look like fish; they have no pectoral fins, no fishiness. Instead the dorsal fin runs the entire length of the body, fimbriated and smooth from the aerodynamic head shaped like a jet cockpit to the tapering tail. Morays are covered in mucus. The green moray is really blue. Or is it brown? Or gray? Or a funereal black? I’m not sure; sources vary. The mucus is green, or perhaps yellow; the mucus is poisonous. Or not; sources vary. These are no long-distance swimmers; they are immensely strong but slothful, like high-school boys on a Sunday afternoon. Morays are mostly nocturnal, shy, and spend much of the time curled in their dens, often with just their heads peeping out. Morays don’t see well, but they have a great sense of smell, and mostly wait for prey to wander by—lobster, octopus, fish of all kinds. Divers and snorkelers are most likely to see only the wavering head, the long sinuous body curled out of sight in a den. (Often, if you look carefully, you can see that snaky body wound round and round the rocks and coral like loose rope.) Most morays stay in exactly the same place for years—the same part of the reef, the same den. Divers recognize specific eels, and tend to name the big ones.
Sources always vary in this world. Morays are dangerous, I read in a fish guide. They are aggressive, ugly, fearful beasts. Such adjectives recur again and again, in science as well as stories. My beloved Britannica says “they can be quite vicious,” an oddly subjective entry in that careful publication. My well-worn Peterson Field Guide warns, “Before sticking your hand into a crevice, look into it carefully. A dreaded moray eel may be hiding there.”
The mouth—that’s what scares people. The big, wide mouth and all those pointy teeth, gaping at you. Morays have small gills; breathing requires them to open and close their mouths continuously to force water through. They look contemplative, like a man working off the novocaine. Fish have a second set of teeth in pharyngeal jaws in the throat, to clench onto captured prey and pull it quickly down into the gut. Pharyngeal jaws seem odd, but they are common. Human embryos have extra jaws that fade into the skull early in development. The moray, however, is unique. They catch prey with the long, needle-sharp front teeth and then the pharyngeal jaws shoot out of the throat like a questing blind skull and bite again. The front jaws let go and the pharyngeal jaws retract, and the prey ratchets down, gone in a second or two.
There are many videos on the Internet purporting to show moray attacks. Like dreaded or vicious, like ugly, the word attack is one colored by imagination. In many of the videos, divers are making faces and showing off, darting out of reach with a scared giggle, egging each other on. One of the most well-known shows a moray biting a diver’s thumb off with a crisp pop. (If a moray bites your finger, the pharyngeal jaws won’t let go—do we think they would reconsider if they could? Do we imagine an eel listening—Let go, you shouldn’t eat that?) If the eel gets a finger, it simply bites the finger off. If the eel gets hold of something bigger—an arm, a thigh— well, there’s not much to be done. The diver gets out of the water with the eel attached until someone can smash its head in and cut the jaws off. In the case of the thumb—in every case I’ve heard of in twenty years of diving—the divers were petting eels or teasing eels or trying to coax the eel out of its den to take pictures. These are big ones, eels with names, the reliable local celebrities that tourists want to see. They are conditioned to come out of their dens to be fed. Conditioned, but not domesticated. Mostly, the divers were feeding the eels hot dogs, which look, even to my human eyes, a lot like fingers.
One can let go of a surprising number of concerns underwater, drifting slowly down into the blue like a pebble in honey. After the first startled moment, the inside-out reorienting of the world that comes with sinking underwater, I’m at ease; at times, I’m so relaxed I can almost nap. Since that first dive off Bonaire, I’ve seen many morays: spotted and goldentail morays, dwarf and zebra morays, and once a chestnut moray, a trick to find. Off Glover’s Atoll in Belize, I drifted down a huge boulder to a little sandy plain like a courtyard, falling without hurry through water clear as air. When I reached the sand I looked casually to the right and saw a green moray several feet long resting under a ledge with his eye on me: Gymnothorax funebris. Green morays can reach eight feet in length and weigh up to sixtyfive pounds. Gymnos is thorax, and akos means the naked breast. The word funebris means funereal, for the dark color, perhaps. Or for the fear.
Later that day, in a cavern, my dive partner, Carol, kept gesturing vaguely at me, and when I shrugged at her—I don’t understand, what are you trying to tell me?—she grinned and shook her head. Back on the boat, I asked her what she’d meant. “A moray,” she said. “Right behind you in his den, the whole time.”
In Roatán, off the coast of Honduras, the sand is smooth as white silk, and the foam flows along at the edge with a snake’s hiss. The little village of West End is scattered with wanderers from around the world, many sporting cherry-red sunburns. I dove one afternoon with Sergio, a six-foot-tall Spaniard twenty years younger than me. Such pairings are the stuff of diving. We took a little skiff out to the reef wall at the end of the lagoon. Everyone on the island was in siesta, it seemed; there was no one in sight, no current, just the two of us
buzzing on glassine water under a hazy sky. We hooked to a mooring and slid in, to drift slowly along the coral wall with barely a kick. The tumbled stone wall was interlaced with the lilac vases and greenish lettuce leaves of sponges, the twisted pipe cleaners of wire coral, and the wavering Christmas ribbons of soft corals called knobby candelabrum and dead man’s fingers. Two huge crabs shuffled back and forth like gunfighters at high noon. A small, tight band of black margate formed a square wall to one side, turning in unison as we passed.
I was floating in the kind of sensuous abandon that drives time out of one’s mind altogether, hearing only my own exhalation, when something slipped into my peripheral vision. I turned to see a great green moray right beside me, glorious and iridescent. He matched my speed, watching me with a thoughtful eye. Sergio was ahead, hovering, absorbed by some small creature. His tan, lean body hung horizontally beside the wall. The moray, with what seemed a meaningful glance in my direction, slid sideways toward Sergio and parked just above him, inches behind his head, like a semi heading smoothly into a truck stop. Morays smell through two small tubes like snorkels jutting out from the snout; the eel seemed to be inhaling the scent of Sergio’s shampoo. Its huge, undulant body was as long as the man.
I slowly sidled over, trying to get in front of Sergio, wanting to catch his attention in a quiet way. I could feel myself grimacing a little. Finally he looked up and I gestured, Come here, with just my fingertips—nothing dramatic or abrupt. He must have noticed my darting eyes, because he turned around and then leaped away. He stopped beside me and there we hung; we watched the eel and he watched us and this just went on and for a long while. The eel was an elephantine leaf, a scarf, a nymph, a dragon. A sea monster, a dream. I longed to touch it.
Morays are hermaphrodites, sometimes transmutating male to female, sometimes fully both genders at once—screwing willy-nilly with whatever moray or Spaniard comes along. They court when the water is warm (who doesn’t?) and they really gawp then—breathing hard, wrapping around and around each other’s long, slippery bodies like tangling fringe, like braids, like DNA. Eggs and sperm are released together, and the eels return to their anchorite dens. When the eggs hatch, endless uncountable larvae called leptocephali dissipate, a million shreds of wide ribbon—tiny fish heads on long, flat bodies. The larvae float for nearly a year. (The ocean is always a bath of barely visible infants; one swims in a snow of newborns.) The survivors of that perilous year absorb their pectoral fins and grow into elvers, which is what juvenile eels are really called, and in time each finds an empty spot and makes a den and lives for decades. They have few enemies: a couple of the biggest fishes. Bigger morays. You.
The Roman aristocracy loved morays; they farmed them as livestock and kept them as pets in elaborate ponds. Now and then a master fed his less obedient slaves to the eels, presumably in pieces; human blood was thought to fatten a moray nicely. Delicious or not, it’s always a bad idea to eat an alpha predator. A bit like unprotected sex—when you eat the top of the food chain, you eat every link. A wee dinoflagellate (Gambierdiscus toxicus, a microalga that feeds on dead coral) produces a neurotoxin called ciguatoxin, becoming more concentrated in each successive species. It’s possible to get ciguatera from herbivorous fish, and little guys like snapper, but the alpha predators bank it like gold. The toxin is a nasty one—almost everyone who eats a fish with ciguatoxin will get sick. Victims vomit and suffer diarrhea; their lips and fingers go numb; cold sensations switch with hot; they feel profound weakness and pain in the teeth and pain on urinating and arrhythmias and respiratory failure. The symptoms last for months and you can pass the toxin to others through sexual activity and pregnancy. King Henry I of England may have died of ciguatera; he collapsed after gorging on eels. At one Filipino banquet featuring a large yellow margin moray, fifty-seven people got sick; ten went into comas; two died.
Weeks of wind and rain lashing the sea kept us land bound on Cat Island. Carol made hats out of sticks and wrack. I restlessly walked the same path several times a day. One morning I found a perfect set of frog legs lying on the path. They had been nipped off at the waist. An hour later, they were boiling with brown ants. By afternoon, the ants had dug a hole beside the path, and tugged the legs halfway in; they were bowed, as though swimming into the earth. By morning, there was only skeleton; long, slender toe bones pointed to the angry sky.
The world is a strange place, for all of us—strange to me, strange to frogs, to ants, to eels. Strangely full of all those others, who are utterly unlike us, who look and act insensibly. If they are thoughtful, these are thoughts that have nothing to do with me; if the glance is meaningful, there is no way for me to know the meaning. But we do insist that we know what it is, that it is familiar in some crucial way.
Everyone wants the familiar. (Yes, people often say the opposite, that they crave the new and long for adventure and novelty. They really don’t. What we call adventure is the process of meeting the new and turning it into the known as fast as possible. We want to name the unnamed and touch the untouched so that they are no longer unnamed and untouched. No longer strange. Then we can go tell people all about what we’ve found.) Perhaps it is always most difficult with the sea, to which so many are drawn as though by a piper, and where none of us belong. No shared fundament in the sea; coral and sponge and fish are a wonder to me, but there is nothing of me there.
Ah, we long for commonality. The idea that an animal is simply out of reach, forever opaque, is not to be tolerated. The unknown makes sociopaths of us all, turning animals into objects to meet our needs, affirm us, befriend us. So one imparts motive, emotion, even morals to an animal. And one sees what one expects to see. Perhaps a vicious sea monster. Perhaps a puppy who takes a biscuit from your hand. In both cases, one will be wrong.
Since that first trip to Bonaire, I’ve seen a lot of fish feeding. The point is a good photograph, an exciting moment—a good tip at the end of the dive. Hot dogs are used because they don’t fall apart; frozen peas sink nicely in the sunny water. Cheez Whiz is quite popular— people find it amusing to squirt a can of Cheez Whiz under water and stir a school of damselfish into frenzy. As a species, we are easily amused. Besides the nice tip, fish feeding gives us control. It bounds the boundless. We’ve interacted, we’ve made a connection. Whether the damselfish or stingray or moray eel feels the same way is not at issue here (though people are remarkably quick to ascribe motives like pleasure or play or, God knows, affection to the behavior of a carnivore chasing a sausage). The last thing we want to admit is that they may be indifferent to us. We tiny fragile mammals, stunned by the danger of the world; we press our fear against the vast, improbable gestalt of the sea.
I like to dive at night; the reef is wide awake, softened and kinetic with a million little bodies. Slipping into black water is always a little spooky, a reminder: my legs dangling out of sight above the primeval deep. At night I carry only a little light and cover a smaller territory, so I can focus on one thing at a time. The stalk eye of a conch slowly turns as it hauls its great shell across the sand. Coral polyps dance like hands hauling in a net. Carol’s fairy light bobs in the distance. A red snapping shrimp rises up to a boxer’s stance when my light passes by. A basket star unfurls itself into a burnt-orange tumbleweed. And at the edge of my little circle of light, a moray slides across the ivory sand and is gone into the dark.
On one night dive, with a group too big for me, too much the herd, the divemaster led us to a moray’s den, the young green eel’s head caught in a dozen headlamps like a startled deer. It turned from side to side, trying to watch all of us at once. A German man with a big video camera kept darting in, trying to get a good close-up of the eel’s face; finally, he took the camera and started bashing the eel on the head. I felt myself retract far deeper than the eel could go, retreat all the way out of the human species. Bite him, I thought. What are you waiting for? He had fingers to spare. But I also knew it would likely be the death of the eel. Finally the divemaster pulled the man away, and we ascended to a rocking sea. The sky was close and thick with stars; there was sheet lightning all across the horizon, silent, huge. In that moment I wanted never to speak to a person again.
Some time later, I was back on Roatán. Carol and I dove through a splendid set of winding, narrow coral canyons separated by rivers of sand. The day was bright and wide beams of sunlight shone down on the reef. We flew through the wonderland, this solid chunk of long time. We finned slowly up one canyon, around, and down the next, back and forth, watching the abundant schools of blue tang and sergeant majors like flocks of butterflies. I stopped to watch a glorious queen triggerfish hovering shyly in the distance. Then I turned around and saw a huge green moray hanging there, a single poised muscle a few feet away.
We hung eye to eye. He was more than five feet long, a dusky, piney green that seemed to shimmer in the light. For a half hour the eel stayed near us: flowing straight along the reef an inch off the coral, matching every curve; sliding over low ridges like, well, water; slipping sideways in and out of thin breaks and reappearing around a turn as though waiting. I felt blessed—not by some imagined connection, not by recognition or a meeting of minds, but by the strange that will remain forever strange and by its strangeness tell me who I am. We found ourselves fifty feet down at the base of a straight ridge, Carol and me and the big green eel, and then it spun around and swam straight up the coral mountain toward the bright sky and was gone.
Sallie Tisdale’s most recent book is Women of the Way (Harper San Francisco).