Biology Connections – Ike Noeau:
Puhi, or eels, are a specialized group of fishes with long snake-like bodies that typically lack paired fins and scales. They are well adapted to live in crevices, holes, and sand and are split into three groups: snake eels, conger eels, and moray eels. Moray eels are the most frequently observed eel on Hawaiian reefs, often seen peering out of their holes, with their mouths gaping open, displaying their sharp teeth. Although this looks menacing, the opening of the mouth is a technique to pump water over their gills in order to breathe. Moray eels typically hunt at night, where they prey on fish and invertebrates like crustaceans. Although eels have a reputation for inflicting painful bites, they don’t typically attack humans unless provoked or the humans are carrying fish. Remarkably, puhi exhibit cooperative hunting in which goatfish, jacks, or groupers accompany moray eels when foraging. Moray eels enter the dark cavities where prey hide, the other fish block the exits, and the animal inside is trapped with the choice of either being eaten inside or as they make a dash for their escape. There are 42 different species of Moray eel in Hawaii, making it the second most diverse fish group in Hawaii after wrasses. Puhi are usually well camouflaged, with dark coloration, blotches and specks. Some puhi, however, such as the Dragon, Snowflake, and Zebra Moray Eel, exhibit interesting body patterns like spots, stripes, and snowflakes. Moray eels are typically about 1 to 3 feet in length, but certain species, such as the Giant Moray, can grow to 8 feet long. Certain puhi, like the Tiger Moray Eel, swallow other eels whole much like snakes do on the land.
Cultural Connections – Mo’olelo:
Puhi are common aumakau, or deifed ancestors who act as protectors, for many Hawaiian families. Ku, the Hawaiian god of war, is said to have frequently taken the form of puhi. In many Hawaiian stories, puhi often take the form of a male lover that seduces a Hawaiian woman and turns into an eel at night. In many stories, a brother or father of the woman discovers the secret love and then kills the puhi to end the relationship. In other stories, a giant puhi lives in a local fish-pond, making it difficult for fisherman to do their job. In one of these tales, Ai’ai, the son of fisherman Ku’ula, makes a name for himself by successfully defeating a giant puhi.
Several species of puhi were an important food source for Native Hawaiian communities, and are still eaten in certain dishes today. Historically, several ali’i around Hawai’i sought out puhi for special guests. Hawaiians have a variety of methods for catching puhi, including spear-fishing, basket traps, scoop nets, and fishing hook and line. Hawaiians call the puhi the “long fish of the sea” (Ka iʻa loloa i ke kai).
Puhi are featured in line 197 and 1910 of the Hawaiian creation chant,
(197) Hanau ka puhi Kauwila noho i kai
Born is the Kauila eel living in the sea
(1910) Hanau ko‘ako‘a, hanau ka puhi
Born were corals, born the eels