Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#420: The Big "Bad" Wolf... Eel

The winds associated with our recent storms might cause one to think that the big bad wolf was blowing down grandma's front door to get at Little Red Riding Hood. Fortunately our island lacks these carnivores so ladies of all ages are safe... at least from the non-human kind. However, I recently discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that there are wolves of a different color (er, species) right here in our island waters!

I was in the post office arcade recently where the entire town gathers and gets its gossip... er, I mean news. Jason Manix stopped to tell me about a dive he did back in November out at Farnsworth Bank... unquestionably my favorite Catalina dive site. What astonished me was that Jason and his dive buddy Geline saw a big bad wolf near the top of that submerged pinnacle. Since they were only at about 75 ft., I assumed narcosis wasn't the cause. In my more than 40 years of diving Catalina, I have never seen one of these wolves even though they are known from the Sea of Japan and Kodiak Island, Alaska, as far south as Papalote Bay in Baja California. Being a cold water species, they are much less common "south of the border, down Mexico way."

I'm referring to the wolf-eel (Anarrichthys ocellatus). "Wolfies" have large bulbous heads with prominent, sharp canine teeth ("all the better to eat you with") and large molars. Fortunately little girls (and most divers) are safe since they use them to crush hard shelled invertebrates like snails, crabs and sea urchins. I've never seen one in person, but based on pictures I consider them to have a "face" only a mother could love. Wolf-eels have essentially continuous dorsal, tail and anal fins; but lack pelvic fins found on most other fish. Their species name comes from the dark ocellated or "eyed" spots on the usually gray but occasionally brown or greenish body. Juveniles are more orange or orange-brown. Males have heads that are puffier and lighter than the female's darker and more slender ones.

Wolfies are classified in their own little family of fish with no other relatives in our waters. That makes holiday gatherings much more cozy. They frequent rocky reefs with crevices and caves to hide in, and may be seen to a depth of nearly 750 feet. Wolf eels establish dens in the nooks and crannies of the reef. It is said that these fish pair off for life (unlike too many humans). In captivity they select mates at about four years of age when they are three feet long, with both the male and female occupying the same home. However, they must require a substantial courtship period since they don't seem to begin laying eggs until three years later when they are seven years old.

The Love Doctor (former Cousteau colleague Dr. Milton Love at UCSB) describes their mating ritual in his book Probably More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast. In fact he probably does tell you more than you wanted to know about this mating ritual! According to him, the male begins by butting his head against the abdomen of the female. Now that's the way to get her attention... not! He then wraps himself around her body and apparently fertilizes the eggs as they are laid. Both male and female share in the defense of the large masses which may number at least 10,000 eggs. They wrap themselves around the egg mass, and only one adult will leave the den at a time to feed. The eggs hatch in 13 to 16 weeks... assuming they aren't eaten by egg predators including bottom-dwelling rockfish and kelp greenlings.

Juvenile wolf-eels adopt a lifestyle quite different from the adults, typical of kids feeling their oats when (if) they leave home. They are pelagic, that is living out in open water. The young 'uns stay in the upper part of the water column for as long as two years before settling to the ocean floor. Here they remain active, swimming around on the bottom. Dr. Love writes that they become "couch potatoes" after varying lengths of time in the open, and retreat into their dens. Large wolf eels may reach lengths of more than 6 1/2 feet.

Normally this is not a species targeted by commercial or recreational fishers, but they may be caught occasionally. They may become incidental take in trawl nets or crab pots. According to Dr. Love, they are good to eat. He states that certain Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest reserved them for tribal healers. Now I'm a "doctor" (well, not that kind... but I'll take a look at it anyway), however I think I'll pass and just poach some salmon for dinner.

© 2011 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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Wolf eel images courtesy of Ken Kopp (upper left), Phil Garner (right side) and NOAA.
Image in lower left from NOAA shows a pair in their den with the uglier male in the background.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2010 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia