The Woefully Misunderstood Wolf Eel
If sea lions are the dogs of the sea then the wolf eel is the cat of the sea. Curious, moody, affectionate, wary.
In the couple of years I have spent obsessively scuba diving, I have come to know the wolf eel in many different ways. Firstly by reputation, secondly by observation, and more recently as a result of hand-feeding them squid in the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
Today their grumpy faces have a way of making me smile, even with a regulator in my mouth.
Unfortunately, wolf eels—much like sharks—have an undeservedly poor reputation. While the daring diver will tell you “if you’re careful you can give ‘em a scratch under the chin,” most people will pull back in distaste, the wolf eel’s wrinkly face, and needle-sharp teeth the sole focus of their gaze.
But, spend enough time diving with these creatures and even the most hard-hearted soul will find themselves softening.
The first time I saw a wolf eel was in 2016 at about 60 feet in the Hood Canal in Washington State. My instructor was leading the way back up the slope after our deep dive for the Advanced class. He stopped suddenly and gestured toward an old car tire. There, like a frond of seaweed, a thick grey wolf eel was wafting, its fat upper torso tapering into a slim ribbon shape that it kept tucked inside the tire. It peered at each of us but didn’t venture out too much further. It was as though it was just as interested in checking us out as we were it. Cautious curiosity on both sides. It didn’t appear scared, but it also didn’t act aggressively. I was awestruck.
When we surfaced, my instructor—a tall, “manly man” known for his crabbing prowess and love of a good old tri-tip steak—talked affectionately about this creature, as though he were talking about his dog. It was at this point that I realized how peculiar people are. On the one hand we are capable of eating animals, totally detaching ourselves from their experience, life and character and then on the other, of loving and appreciating them, crying when they die, and yes even reading personalities into their actions. How on earth does one reconcile these differences?
Since 2016 I have seen many more wolf eels. Some as shallow as 40 feet, but more often in the 100 to 120 feet range tucked into rocky dens in the Hood Canal.
While I have never been scared of them, I have always been cautious. Like others, I first saw the teeth, the angry-looking face, the evil sidekick reputation (thanks a bunch Disney). Now I see unique personalities. The Oregon Coast Aquarium has a lot to do with this overwhelming change of heart.
The first time I dove Orford Reef—the exhibit housing six wolf eels—I hate to admit it, but I was nervous. When I realized the eels were only curious about whether or not I had food, I relaxed. Without the “pink ball” they have been trained to respond to at feeding time, I was just another fish in the exhibit.
Then, on my second shift I got offered an opportunity to feed them myself. My team seemed to think I had been offered the best job, much like diving the shark exhibit. All I could think about was how to manage six hungry eels. Would they bite me in their frenzy to get the food? I didn’t feel “lucky.” I asked my dive buddy Diana if she’d go first and show me how it was done. She readily agreed and before long we were in the water, hungry eels hovering around us waiting to be fed.
Much to my surprise, it wasn’t the wolf eels I had to be concerned about, it was the rockfish. The wolf eels, pushy as they were, did not make lunges for it. In fact, they seemed somewhat clumsy going for their food, and it had to be held close to their mouth so that they could take it. Even that wasn’t a guarantee that they would manage to swallow it. If we let go of the food too soon, a rockfish would dart in and steel the squid, gobbling it down in seconds. In fact, one of the eels hadn’t even come out of its den and Diana and I had to go to it and feed it in situ.
Within one dive, my impression of them had wholly changed. I wanted to watch them, to experience them, to protect them. I wanted people to know how full of character they were, how unique, how funny.
To this day, this is the task I most look forward to. While I am still cautious about letting my fingers get in the way of those sharp teeth, I am more concerned about frightening or bumping into the eels if one does inadvertently get a finger while going for the squid. Really, it isn’t any different to feeding carrots to horses. The same concern and approach applies.
While I am sentimental when it comes to animals, in the past I would have written about my interactions with them in a more detached “scientifically-cool” manner. It has only been thanks to the expanding diversity of science writing and science communication that I am able to write this openly about my perceptions of these incredible creatures. This also has a lot do with two authors who now occupy roles of “hero” in my mind: Jonathan Balcombe, author of “What a Fish Knows,” and Sy Montgomery, author of “The Soul of an Octopus.”
Truly, if your observations count for nothing, how accurate is the science anyway? How does one progress? Consider Darwin and the finches. Newton and his apple. Galileo and his spheres. Thanks to the Oregon Coast Aquarium and the wonderful staff who work it, I am able to experience the marine world in a way that few others get to. Lucky? Ridiculously so!