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  • Writer's pictureChica Jo

A Garden of Eely Delights

This past April we sailed Triplefin around the Sea of Cortez' wild side of Isla Carmen and anchored in colorful Bahia Cobre (Copper Bay). The water was warm and clear so I was tickled pink to dive in and down to check the anchor and have a look about. I couldn't believe it. Right under the boat in a just 8 meters of water was a colony of beasts that we have searched for around the world and found only rarely on deep dives of 35-40 meters. Thankfully our anchor had dropped and hooked into the sand just outside of their neighborhood's boundary. I scrambled back aboard with a smile that let Paul know he was going to want to grab his mask and fins and camera.

Garden Eels! Heterochongrinae, the diminutive sub-family of the otherwise big-bodied conger eels. Their colonies can sprawl over a square acre of sand. Each pencil-thin eel anchors their tail into their burrow with special eely mucus. The rest of the eel sticks up out of the sand in search of yummy plankton floating around. When there's no current you see them stretching their bodies out every which way but loose, snatching food in quick, serpentine strikes. However, when there's a current running the entire community of garden eels will all face into the flow and form each of their bodies into the same question-mark (?) shape. Why? Well, the science is recently in on this. That ? posture actually reduces drag down to a mere 1/4 of what it would otherwise be! These skinny fish know their applied physics. The ones under Triplefin were likely Taeniconger digueti, Cortez Garden Eels.

One of the most enchanting and frustrating aspects of these garden eel communities is their notorious shyness. Really, they are such a tease. Swimming over their patch is like watching a stadium of sports fans do the wave, but make that an inverse wave. Just as soon as you get almost close enough to appreciate some of them, they immediately drop down into their sandy holes. Look over your shoulder as you swim away and you see them slowly re-emerge. Paul has long sought garden eels shallow enough to just rest on the bottom, on SCUBA, long enough to for them to get used to his presence so he can film them. So enamored is he of these small, overlooked eels that once, on a dive in the Galapagos, he spent most of his air staring at a holey patch of sand, waiting to get a lingering look at them. He was oblivious to the muscly squadron of hammerhead sharks gliding over our heads! Definitely check out Paul's awesome video.

In addition to Paul's above photos and video from Bonaire, you might enjoy this clip from the New York Times. Oh, yeah. Why am I not sharing any photos or video of Bahia Cobre's garden eels? He didn't get any. I don't recall exactly why . . . what situation came up and demanded his attention, but you fellow sailors will surely understand. We are heading towards Isla Carmen again now . . . wish us luck.

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Jan 14, 2021

Those plankton pulverising Garden Eels are super impressive. Enjoyed Paul's video and the NYT clip. Thanks Chica Jo.


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