Hawaiian Name: Puhi

[Photograph: Eel showing teeth]


Pūhi niho wakawaka.

An eel with pointed teeth.

A fierce and fearless warrior.

                                    (Pukui: 2720-298)


Eels belong to the scientific order Anguilliformes, which includes about 16 families totaling hundreds of eel species. 

The Hawaiian Islands are home to eels from three families: Congridae, Ophichthidae, and Muraenidae, including three native species of Congridae (conger and garden eels), and at least 16 native species of Ophichthidae (snake eels). 

The moray eels (Muraenidae) include at least 38 species, a number exceeded in Hawaiian waters only by the wrasses (among shore fish). 

Cusk eels (Ophidiidae) are also known as brotulas, and are recognized by the barbels on their snout.  Two species are native to the Hawaiian Islands.  Belonging to the order Ophidiiformes, cusk eels are not true eels.

All of the eels in Hawaiian waters are known by the Hawaiian term puhi, which is often qualified with another descriptive term.  Conger eels have cylindrical bodies, are nocturnal, and commonly known in the Hawaiian Islands as white eels. 

Two species of conger eels are native to Hawaiian waters.  Garden eels live in burrows in sandy areas near strong water currents, with just one species native to the Hawaiian Islands. 

Snake eels are distinguished by a long, low dorsal fin and a stiff, pointed tail that is sometimes used to burrow into the sand.

The moray eel breathes by rhythmically opening and closing its mouth to move water over its gills.  Some moray eels have blunt teeth that are used to crush invertebrates, but many moray species have needle-sharp teeth.

Eels are generally not aggressive toward swimmers or divers, who usually only get bit if they reach into a cave or hole in the reef, surprising or threatening an eel.  This may result in a severe cut, especially if the hand is jerked back rapidly when it is bitten as this may increase the damage done by the eel’s backward-pointing teeth. 

In ancient Hawai‘i some eels were considered ‘aumakua (spiritual guardians). 


Moray Eels

Family: Muraenidae


[Photograph: Dragon moray eel]

Dragon Moray Eel (Enchelycore pardalis)

Hawaiian Name: Puhi Kauila


Length: Up to 3 feet (91 cm).

The dragon moray eel is brownish-orange/red in color with numerous white and black markings.  The long, tubular posterior nostrils (nasal tubes) of the dragon moray have a horn-like appearance, and extend upward from its head.  The eel’s teeth-lined jaws are so curved they don’t close completely.

Though not often seen around the main Hawaiian Islands, the dragon moray eel is more common around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands at depths from 30 to 100 feet (9 to 30 m).  The dragon moray eel feeds on small fish and crustaceans.


He pūhi ke aloha, he i‘a noho i ke ale.

Love is like an eel, the creature that dwells in the sea cavern.

Love makes one restless in the mind, like the writhing of an eel.

                                                                        (Pukui: 927-99)


[Photograph: Dwarf moray eel]

Dwarf Moray Eel (Gymnothorax melatremus)

Hawaiian Name: Puhi


Length: Up to 10 inches (25 cm).

Also known as the Pencil moray eel, the dwarf moray eel is quite common in Hawaiian waters, yet is quite secretive and rarely seen, preferring to hide in crevices in the reef. 

Bright yellow to brownish-yellow (mustard-colored), the dwarf moray eel feeds on small crustaceans.  The iris in the eye of the dwarf moray eel is iridescent blue with a vertical black bar.

[Photograph: Dwarf moray eel]



[Photograph: Snowflake moray eel]

Snowflake Moray Eel (Echidna nebulosa)

Hawaiian Name: Puhi Kāpā


Length: Up to 30 inches (76 cm).

The snowflake moray eel has a white mouth area (snout), with yellow nostrils, and a light brown body with large black marks containing yellow.

Feeding primarily on crabs, the snowflake moray eel uses its siphon-like mouth to suck its prey out of the reef.  Then the eel uses its teeth, which are not particularly sharp, to crush the hard-shelled prey (mostly crabs).

Snowflake moray eels are seen to depths of about 90 feet (27 m).  Divers encounter these eels fairly often, perhaps because snowflake moray eels like to swim in the open more often than other eels.



[Photograph: Stout moray eel]

Stout Moray Eel (Gymnothorax eurostus)

Hawaiian Name: Puhi


Length: Up to 22 inches (56 cm).

The stout moray eel is one of the most common inshore eels around the Hawaiian Islands, though it is fairly secretive, hiding in crevices in the reef (and not seen very often). 

The stout moray eel has two color forms.  In the dark form, the eel is mostly brown (darker toward the back) and covered with many light colored (pale) markings. 

In the light form, the stout moray eel is mostly white with many brown markings.  The stout moray feeds on fish and crustaceans.



[Photograph: Viper moray eel]

Viper Moray Eel (Enchelynassa canina)

Hawaiian Name: Puhi Kauila


Length: Up to 5 feet (1.5 m).

The dark reddish-brown to dark gray viper moray eel is among the largest eels in Hawaiian waters. 

With long, teeth-lined jaws that are so curved they close only at the tips, the eel is known to have among the longest teeth (particularly the canine teeth) of all Hawaiian eels.  This is also reflected in the eel’s species name, canina, which refers to the dog-like teeth. 

The viper moray feeds on crustaceans, fish, and octopi.


He pūhi kumu one, he i‘a ‘ino.

An eel of the sand bank is a dangerous creature.

Said of eels that can travel on the sand and rocks.  Tales are told of eels climbing pandanus trees and dropping on persons resting or sleeping under them.  Also said of a dangerous person.

                                                            (Pukui: 928-99)



[Photograph: Whitemouth moray eel]

Whitemouth Moray Eel (Gymnothorax meleagris)

Hawaiian Name: Puhi ‘Ōni‘o


Length: Up to 3.5 feet (1 m).

The whitemouth moray eel is generally brown to orangish-brown in color, and covered with small white spots.  It is probably the most commonly seen moray eel on Hawaiian reefs. 

The inside of the eel’s mouth is white as is the tip of the eel’s tail.  The whitemouth moray eel feeds on crustaceans and small fish as well as octopi.  The eel’s Hawaiian name, puhi ‘ōni‘o means “spotted eel.”[i]

[i]Pukui, Mary Kawena, and Elbert, Samuel H.  Hawaiian Dictionary: Revised and Enlarged Edition.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.