The Demanding Eels of Ambergris Caye

A thick, green moray eel slithers out of his hole underneath a mound of coral.  He knows the routine.  Our snorkeling guide is removing one of his swim fins and, above the surface, placing pieces of fish he’d brought into an empty conch shell.  Dipping back underneath the water, he holds the conch shell out for the eel who readily and greedily devours the offered food.





Eels are not gentle, playful creatures like the stingrays we’ve seen here.  With a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth, they are indiscriminate – the fish, your finger – no matter.  Thus the conch shell feeder. But what about the swim fin in his other hand?  Once the conch shell is empty, the eel comes looking for more.  And like a lot of predators (and Labradors), the best way to know if something is edible is to try a bite.  When the eel snakes forward to investigate (ie: bite) our snorkel guide, he is nudged away by the long swim fin in hand.  The eel then turned toward Rob, his outstretched hand holding the GoPro, bare fingers exposed.

Eel eyeing Rob
The conch shell is empty – What’s Rob got in his hand?

Rob retreated, the guide intervened and the eel, seeming to know the easy meal is now over, retreats back to his hole in the coral.  Probably to wait for the next group of snorkelers.

Eel Retreats
Heading Back to his Hole under the Mound of Coral on the Ocean Floor

That evening after dinner we walked along the beach path in San Pedro, Belize back toward our room.  A thin, leathery, salty fisherman was cleaning his day’s catch in ankle-deep water at the edge of a pier.  His audience included a couple of people on the cement pier and a few Southern Stingrays in the shallows.  The fish were laid out on the cement above the water.  The fisherman scales them and then with one swift, methodical sweep of the knife, from gill to tail, he liberates the innards in one big piece, tossing it to the waiting rays.  The carcass landed in the water on top of the ray, whose mouth is well underneath his body.  He maneuvered a bit in the shallow water and the carcass seemed to hit him in the eye before his giant wing flapped over it and directed it into his mouth.

Some locals compare the rays to pet dogs. They can be playful, interactive and gentle, like a ray we encountered while snorkeling.  After having played with our snorkeling guide, this ray is seeking interaction from Rob.  Unfamiliar with ray play etiquette, Rob wisely moved away.

Back to the fisherman in front of us…

Then, like a scene from Star Wars in the trash compactor, a thick, slithering body breaks the surface.  Someone says, “eel!” and in an instant, the fisherman hops out of the water and onto the cement block with his fish.  He looked briefly over his shoulder at the eel slipping closer and went back to the task at hand.  While the rays are respectful, keeping their distance and waiting for their handout, the eel darts right in demanding the food.  The fisherman has encountered this eel here before, hence his hasty retreat out of the water.  A bandage on his left foot tells the tale of the previous encounter.  “Thanks for the fish. Can I eat this, too?”  I can only imagine how quickly he hopped out of the water that day!

A local spear fisherman who has been on the pier jabs at the eel with his spear to haze him away.  The eel thrashes and writhes out of the water at the insult. We all instinctively stepped back.  What if he flips onto the pier?!?  It was over in an instant and the eel retreated into the murky, dusky waters.  The fisherman stepped back into the water.  Aware that he now had a much larger audience, he pet the ray and hand-fed him the innards of the next fish.   Ooh and aahs.  He’s the star of his own show.  All in a day’s work fishing the tropics.


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