Officials with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources said the sharp-toothed sea creature that bit a surfer off of Waikiki Beach Saturday was an eel, not a shark.

Emergency responders first believed a shark attacked the man, in his 30s, who was hospitalized in serious condition for injuries to his foot. But later, EMS said the injuries were more consistent with an eel bite.

Eel bites don’t make the headlines the way shark attacks do, but health professionals and divers say they happen occasionally and can cause permanent damage.

Hawaii is home to dozens of species of eels that live in crevices and under rocks, with one of the most common variety being the moray. Most Hawaiian morays are less than 2 feet long, but a few species can reach over 6 feet.

There isn't data that tracks the number of eel bites in Hawaii.
Eel bites can cause lasting nerve and tendon damage if divers try to rip their hands from eels’ mouths. Wikipedia

Hawaii doesn’t track how many eel bites happen each year, but experts say most happen when someone is spearfishing or accidentally puts a limb into an eel’s hole.

Craig Thomas, an emergency physician on Oahu, said he’s treated about 15 to 20 eel bites in the last 30 years. Less severe ones may go unreported, he said.

“They’re not rare, but they’re certainly not common,” Thomas said. “You certainly shouldn’t stay out of the water because of eels.”

Eel’s have sharp, needle-like teeth that are curved to hook onto their prey, Thomas said. If divers struggle to free their limbs from an eel’s mouth, the teeth can rip nerves, muscles and other soft tissue.

Among divers, the snake-like sea creatures have a reputation for leaving nasty injuries if provoked.

“Honestly speaking, that’s a creature in the sea I’m actually more wary of than a shark or a barracuda,” said Erik Sorrel, the owner of Oahu Diving. “They’re really, really really bad when they bite down on you. It’s like putting your hand on a table and having someone just putting a knife down on you.”

Generally, eels are not aggressive, Sorrel said. Eels have very poor eyesight, but a heightened sense of smell, he added.

None of Sorrel’s diving customers have been bitten by eels. But it’s more common for diving instructors or spear fishermen to find their limbs in a crevice with an eel, he said.

Daniel Wasserot, a boat captain and scuba instructor, said he got 16 stitches after being bitten by a yellow moray eel while spearfishing in Punaluu three years ago.

eel bite11-15-2012-1
Daniel Wasserot got 16 stitches after being attacked by an eel in November 2012. Courtesy of Daniel Wasserott

The eel went after the fish Wasserot was trying to catch. He tried to pull the fish from the eel’s grip.

“(The eel) went off and grabbed exactly where I was grabbing my fish, right on top of the thumb,” Wasserot said. “He wasn’t going after me, he was going after the fish.”

For the most part, a diver can get close to an eel without any problems, Wasserot added.

“When I’m scuba diving, I see them quite often … they’re not aggressive,” Wasserot said. “Ninety-five percent of the time they’ll run away.”

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