Eels sometimes suffer from a bad reputation, usually because of the way they breathe and filter oxygen while moving their mouth. In reality, they’re neither aggressive nor dangerous if you respect their space (as you should with all marine creatures), and most of them have quite remarkable features. There are more of 800 known eel species as of today, both fresh and saltwater varieties. Here’s a peek at our top five favorites. If you’d like a look at a few of our favorite octopus species, check them out here.
The most colorful: ribbon eel
Also known as the leaf-nosed moray eel, it’s easy to identify ribbon eels thanks to their flashy colors and distinctive features. They have a large, fan-type nasal opening and a distinct dorsal fin. Juveniles are black with a yellow dorsal fin. As they mature, males morph into an electric-blue color instead of black, with a yellow dorsal fin and area around the mouth. Females eventually become almost completely yellow. You’ll usually find them close to the bottom, sticking out of the sand or a hole, and they’re are common in the shallow waters of the Indo-Pacific and Northwest Pacific.
The dancer: garden eel
Mainly inhabiting the Indo-Pacific, these small eels usually live on a sandy bottom in large groups and poke their heads from their burrows. Since they live in a group, they do look like they are growing from the sea bottom in a garden, like a garden of gently waving grass, hence their name. They can reach over a 3 feet long (1 m), but most of the time they appear hidden in the sand with only a small portion of their body sticking out. Their color can vary depending on the species.
The biggest: giant moray eel
As per its name, this is the heaviest and largest of the species — they can reach up to 10 feet (3 m) in length and weigh over 66 pounds (30 kg). Giant morays are widespread across the Indo-Pacific, from eastern Africa to Hawaii. They hunt at night on the reef, feeding mainly on fish and sometimes small crustaceans. Like some other moray species, they have a second set of jaws with teeth in their throat, which allow them to hold better onto their prey. Given their adult size they have few predators but will not bite a diver unless provoked.
The most … stunning: electric eel
This freshwater fish is commonly called an eel but actually belongs to the knifefish family. They inhabit the fresh water of the Amazon and Orinoco rivers in South America. Several organs in their body allow them to produce electrical discharges. They use low voltage to navigate their environment, and high voltage to stun their prey. They feed mainly on invertebrates such as shrimp and crabs but can also eat small mammals or fish.
The prettiest: snowflake moray eel
Living in the Central and Indo-Pacific, this pretty eel can reach up to 3 feet (1 m) but is generally smaller and living in shallow waters. They are pretty common, and you can easily recognize them thanks to their white, black and yellow pattern that looks like snowflakes.
They feed at night so during the day you’re likely to see only their head sticking out of a hole, hunting for small fish and crustaceans with the help of their acute sense of smell. They are also hermaphrodites, meaning that depending on the individuals, they either change sex during their lifetime or can reproduce with both sexes.