Wolf eels are master predators that live in the North Pacific from the Seas of Okhotsk and Japan to the Krenitzen Islands, in the Aleutian chain, and to Imperial Beach, southern California.
They aren’t eels at all—they’re fish. They have pectoral fins behind their heads, which is characteristic of fish, not marine eels like morays. They are bright orange when young but change as they age with the females being brown and the males being dominantly grey. They have dark round spots with pale rings along the body and fins.. And they eat – a lot! Mostly crabs but also sand dollars, sea urchins, snails, abalone, mussels, clams and fish!
Curious how it tastes? One diver said it was like “sweet, wild trout” and it is described as having edible, sweet and savory white flesh. In some coastal northwest Native American tribes, the wolf eel was referred to as the sacred “doctorfish”. Only the tribal healers were allowed to eat this fish, as it was supposed to enhance their healing powers.
Wolf eels may mate for life, and both male and female care for eggs as they develop. The female lays her eggs in the den (up to 10,000 of them!), then both parents guard them for the 13–16 weeks it takes for them to mature and hatch, even wrapping their bodies around the egg mass to keep it safe from predators. During this period, only one parent at a time goes out to feed.
Adult wolf eels like to live in small enclosed spaces (sometimes competing with octopuses for a desirable living space!). They back their long bodies into these spaces, and then stick their heads out to watch for prey. Juvenile wolf eels spend their early lives in the open water. Once they mature and find a mate, they select a den and typically spend the rest of their lives living in it. They are not at all fazed by humans!