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Wolf Eel on Oregon / Washington Coast: It Only LOOKS Like It Doesn't Like You

Published 10/05/20 at 4:54 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Wolf Eel on Oregon / Washington Coast: It Only LOOKS Like It Doesn't Like You

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(Seaside, Oregon) – They’re grumpy and crusty looking, and they certainly appear as if they don’t like you. Except for maybe a finger of yours as a side dish, if you try to feed it. (All photos courtesy Seaside Aquarium)

None of the above is true of the (believe it or not) rather cuddly Wolf Eel of the Oregon coast and Washington coast. While they have a truly wacky, even angry face, the wolf eel is actually known as kind of a kitten of the deep. There’s a lot of misconceptions about these creatures, but experts in the know are well aware the wolf eel seems to enjoy the company of humans.

Now, other wolf eels and their prey are another matter.

Their range is all over the Pacific Ocean, from Alaska down to California, so they’re definitely regulars along the shorelines of Washington and Oregon. You’ll also regularly find them in aquariums on the West Coast, such as the Westport Aquarium, Seaside Aquarium, Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport and the Charleston Marine Life Center in Coos Bay. They’re even at the Oregon Zoo in Portland.

In aquariums, their lifespan can reach 20 years. In the wild, however, it’s not really known how long they live.

Seaside Aquarium and Oregon Coast Aquarium have had plenty of them, and they’re a popular feature there.

“Don’t let this fish’s eel-like appearance (or name) fool you, true eels do not have fins,” said Tiffany Boothe with the Seaside Aquarium.

According to the Oregon Coast Aquarium, wolf eels are part of a group called the wolffishes – no kidding, that's a real name. They are a set of species of bottom-dwelling meat-eaters that like to hide on the floor of the ocean. These creatures have a massive head and powerful jaws, which makes an ideal mechanism for chomping on their hard-shelled, preferred food of echinoderms, clams, crabs and other crustaceans, sand dollars, snails and sea urchins.

“Wolf eels start their lives out living in the upper part of the water column,” said Boothe. “At the age of two they leave their nomadic lifestyle for the comfort of the rocky ocean floor and essentially become ‘couch potatoes.’ After eating, these fish often rub themselves against the bottom of the ocean floor.”

Their life cycle shows them starting as planktonic larva, then moving to free-swimming juveniles. Even when they’re fairly small, they have a vicious look to them with those gnarly teeth. At this stage, Stargate SG1 fans will immediately see a resemblance to the alien parasites that inhabit the main nemesis race of Go'auld in the first several seasons. At one point they become juveniles that like to hang out on the bottom, and then comes their sedentary stage as mature adults when they start reproducing.

Adults can grow to about five or six feet in length.

Strangely, they have a truly adorable disposition with humans – except for one circumstance.

“When caught accidentally in a fisherman’s net or crab trap, a startled wolf eel can put up quite a fight, thrashing around its 5- to 6-foot long body and mauling anything unfortunate enough to be seized in its powerful jaws,” Boothe said.

Yet when in captivity or even in the wild, they get quite friendly with humans. One Oregon diver with the website (Candice Landau), said she rather fell in love with interacting with these creatures. They’re incredibly friendly when being fed in the wild, but quite slow on the take. You have to present the food close to its mouth or it will drop the morsel and other, more aggressive fish will zoom in and grab it.

“Divers have been known to make friends with wolf eels by bringing food to their dens,” Boothe said. “Some aquarists even feel comfortable feeding the wolf eels by hand.”

It’s even said they like it if you pet them under their chin.

Another fascinating fact is that the wolf eel, like many other fish, have a thick slime coating on them which keeps them healthy. They don’t have scales like other fish, so this is needed to have an immune system, protect them from the environment, and it helps them glide through the water.

Slimy and pissed off-looking? Why, yes they are. But their rather cuddly disposition shows you cannot judge a book by its cover, even if that book is undersea and only seen by diving or going to an aquarium.

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