IT WAS A FEW YEARS AGO that we noticed garden eels as we passed over the reefs, but it took us a while to realise how mesmerising they can be.
Our first sighting of these slippery characters was in the Red Sea, in the days when we tagged along in a group following the dive guide and taking in all the new reef-life sights.
We would see them in the distance, sometimes hundreds of them swaying in the current.
As we approached they would start retreating into their holes, disappearing at the last minute as we got too close for comfort, but reappearing almost as soon as we had passed by.
Garden eels can be found in the Indo-Pacific regions, Indian and Atlantic Oceans and the Red Sea, at depths ranging from 1-45m. Some 12 species have been identified, and new ones are still being found.
Those known to most of us mature to lengths of 35-75cm, depending on species. They establish their habitat in sandy reefs or dense sea-grass areas exposed to currents, enabling them to feed prolifically from drifting zooplankton, their main diet.

THE EELS MAKE THEIR HOLES by gyrating the tip of their tail to drill into the sand, until they are deep enough to retract their bodies and disappear from view. To ensure that the burrow is stable, the eel secretes a substance that adheres to the wall to prevent a collapse.
Although related to conger and moray eels, garden eels don’t share their boldness when approached. They live close to each other in colonies in which 1000 or more eels have been recorded.
Despite co-existing happily in their colonies, individual garden eels are territorial and, as nature usually dictates, the larger the eel the bigger its territory – though this may still mean being no more than 25cm from a neighbour.
Dominant males usually take up their territory in the centre sections of the colony, which allows them the best choice of females and a prime position for feeding.
During the mating season, the males move nearer to the chosen females and can be most aggressive to unwelcome advances by other males.
Once the eggs are fertilised they are released and carried in the current until they hatch as larvae. When grown to sufficient size, the young eels swim down and form burrows of their own in the sandy part of the reef.
We have spent hours watching and waiting for opportunities to get nearer to garden eels to photograph them, and at first thought we should stay downcurrent to avoid disturbing them with such things as the odour of Neoprene.
We later learned that our concern was unfounded, because garden eels have no appreciable sense of smell. They do, however, have incredible eyesight.
The garden eel has its predators.
Snake eels will actually burrow below an unsuspecting garden eel and attack its close relative from below. Or it may be assaulted from above by the larger triggerfish, which dive into the sand and try to dig the eel out of its burrow as it hides from view.
While observing and moving ever closer, we found that some eels were more comfortable in our presence than others. Some would disappear in an instant, but a few would reappear as though curious. On sites we had dived several times, there were occasions when the eels were more tolerant of our presence. If we could position ourselves near corals or, as in one instance, hide next to a discarded oil-drum, we were more likely to be accepted.
Time, slow breathing and staying motionless were the winning factors in being able to take the images we were looking for, moving nearer only when the eels disappeared down their burrows.
As we learnt more, garden eels became hard to resist – as with so many creatures on the reef, we need that understanding to become more a part of their world.
Next time you see a garden-eel colony, spare some rewarding minutes (or even hours) experiencing these exceptional creatures.