Treacherous, fearless, spiteful and cunning the Mediterranean moray is considered a dangerous underwater encounter. But regardless the myths about its fierce nature, the presence of morays in an underwater habitat is a sign of undisturbed ecological balance. The greek common name of the Mediterranean moray is Smerna, while the scientific name is Muraena helena. It belongs in the same class with the European eel, the conger eel, the snake eel and many other species that live in greek seas, generally called “chelia” (eels). It is one of the most famous greek fish, something that is proven by the many common names from various islands: adontas, asmenaria, smynera, smynairi, smyrena and smyrna.
It belongs to the family of Muraenidae together with two other species of morays that live in greek seas. These are the smallest, brown moray eel (Gymnothorax unicolor) and the rarest, newcomer from the Atlantic, fangtooth moray eel (Enchelycore anatina), with has yellow thin head and dozens of sharp teeth. Species of the same family are found all over the planet in temperate and tropical seas and stand out for the beauty of their colors but also for their fierce behavior. None of them, however, is as famous as the Mediterranean moray and this is because this fish has been an object of admiration and study since ancient times.
A little history
According to Aristotle, "smerna gives birth constantly, all year round. It lays a lot of eggs, and her newborns grow quickly. The male (smyros) differs from the female (smyraina). The female is smaller with various colours while the male is pine-coloured and strong. It also has many internal and external teeth...". According to Hesychius, the words "myrena, myreinos" was also used as swears. Photius agrees mentioning "Myrena, on evil it is said" and according to the same author there is a comic verse that says "Oh, traitor and outlaw, and you myrena". The ancient hubris, which seems to have survived to our days in Greece, referred mainly to a deceitful and dangerous woman (smerna).
Moray in ancient times is mentioned in the" Deipnosophistis" of Atheneos as a fine dish while it is known that the Romans bred morays for their delicious meat. The scriptures of the ancients say that it was a privileged treat of the patricians. It is also said that the Romans used them as a penalty of death for criminals and slaves as they threw them into tanks full of large morays. Nikandros Kolofonios in his "Thiriaka” states: "...smerna works bad thoughts and others fish suffer from her presence. When she gets caught and comes out on the boat, she pulls out her teeth and tries to bite the fisherman. Smerna rushes out into the earth, cries (comes to speech) and attends next to the snake, like lovers…”. The last folklore story has reached to our days in Lesbos island. It is said that some ominous full moon morays come ashore and mate with snakes. A story that the famous greek poet Nikos Kavvadias used in his poem “Woman": "dance on the shark's wing, play your tongue on the wind and pass, elsewhere they called you Judith, here Mary, the snake tears at the rock with the moray”. From the above, we can conclude that the folk tradition gave moray features of deceit, treachery and cruelty. Which is partly justified by the behavior of the animal but not to such an extent.
Moray is in fact one of the most beautiful and admirably fish of greek seas. Its color is dark brownish-chocolate or more black-blue with many small and large yellow or creamy clouds. Juveniles are brownish and adults become dark bluish. The body is elongated, serpentine, and the head bulky, pyramidal. At a young age the forehead is straight and in older adults it becomes bulky forming a small forehead. The nostrils are inside tubes while various sensory pores end up in its muzzle. The appearance, to which her bad reputation lies on, is particularly ferocious. The jaws are long and its numerous teeth are conical, long and sharp. There is a gland with poison that communicates with a tooth on its palate. When moray bites a prey it pours poison and paralyzes it, just as venomous snakes do.
Its dark gill slits are confined to small lateral pores shortly after the head. Morays do not have even fins. The dorsal and anal fin are enclosed in dermal folds and joined to the caudal fin. Moray secretes a mucus all over her body that helps in swimming and protection from parasites. There is a highly toxic substance in its blood. It is known that half a gram of that toxin when introduced into the blood of a large dog, brings death in about 4 minutes. This toxin becomes inactive when heated. Moray’s size reaches 180 cm but usually varies between 80 and 120 cm. All those evolutionary adaptations make the Mediterranean moray one of the most successful hunters of the deep.
The ultimate hunter
Morays occur in all greek seas, particularly in the southern regions. It lives exclusively on rocky bottoms with crevices and intense vegetation, in shallow waters near the shores, usually from 1 to 30 meters reaching up to 100 meters deep. Many times smaller morays come out where the wave breaks. Wrecks are favorite spots for the great adults. It is a solitary species that creates small territories. Morays find shelter among the rocks and fight vigorously with each other over the best crevices.
It is mainly a nocturnal hunter that gets active from dusk. It feeds on cephalopods, small fish, crustaceans and remains of dead fish. Her favorite prey is the common octopus. When hunting moray moves just like a snake, close to the rocks, searching patiently every little hole that might hide food. When it spots an octopus it bites it and with rapid movements curls around it like a python. It has been observed that when a large octopus is found, more than two or three morays appear and share the prey without fights. Often when a large moray hunts, other fish that feed on its leftovers gather around it. Many times it is a prey itself. It is known that moray is the favorite prey of the common dentex while the smaller individuals are hunted by large groupers. After dining, morays withdrawn into their chambers, opens their mouth wide and lets small red shrimps of the species Stenopus spinosus clean its teeth.
Moray and humans
Moray is distinguished for its predatory character. But her frightful appearance must not deceive. Like most animals, it does not attack humans unless provoked. Generally small moray eels are afraid and hide quickly, slightly larger ones show a more ferocious behavior and the big ones have enough confidence to just calmly look at the diver before retiring with slow movements. In diving destinations abroad, the divers feed big moray eels in their mouths like little puppies. However, the scene in the film "Deep Blue" where the little hero feeds a moray in the deeps of Amorgos island is not an example to follow. Most moray eels are relative confident and use sudden jolts and bites in the water when the presence of a diver is undesirable.
Often when a spearfisher carries an octopus in his belt, a moray with character can fearlessly follow him to steal his prey. There is a frequent mistake made by scuba divers concerning the dangerousness of morays. The fish is seemingly scarier when it opens the mouth rather than when the mouth is closed. In fact it is more harmless when it opens and closes the mouth as it breathes and is ready to attack when the mouth is closed as it has already taken breath. Most attacks on spearfishers occur after the moray has been hit with a harpoon and is fighting for its survival but there are few injuries to divers lying on the rocks and caging the fish in its chamber. It is true that her sharp teeth can cut flesh. When a moray bites, it won't let go even if you cut off its head. Its power is unreal for its size even out of the water. Many say that it is a seven-souled fish because when a moray is fished it takes a long time to pass until it dies. All this time it strikes, curls and opens its mouth trying to attack on anything. Opinions about its taste are divided. Some say that it is one of the tastiest fish, and others that it is not even worth boiling.
However, this wonderful fish of the greek seas should be taken for exactly what it is. A fearless top hunter, indispensable to the marine ecosystem, ready at any time to attack anything that constitutes prey or threat. And the popular characterization of cunning and deceit ought to be replaced by those of courage, strength and endurance.