'Eels': The World's Most Mysterious Fish

I have spent the last eleven years working on a book about a fish that many people find repulsive. The eel is not an easy fish to like. It is limbless, snake-like, slimy and almost impossible to hold. As children we caught them by accident while fishing for something else and treated them brutally, smashing them on the riverbank until they were subdued enough to get our hooks back. But over years I have come to love the eel, and I think a lot of it has to do with their ability to keep their life history veiled from humans.

The eel is the only fish in the world that spawns in the middle of an ocean but spends its adult lives in rivers, lakes and streams (the opposite of most migratory fishes, like salmon and shad). Still to this day, no one has witnessed an adult eel spawning in the wild. The only reason we know that freshwater eels spawn in the ocean is because tiny eels in their larval stage have been found drifting near the surface thousands of miles from any shore.

As I started to explore the fish, a huge amount of fascinating information unfolded to me, on scientific, anecdotal, and spiritual levels. Did you know that eel is never served raw because the blood carries a neurotoxin (a cubic centimeter of which injected into a rabbit causes instant convulsions and death)? Or that Sigmund Freud's first published paper as a student in Trieste, Italy was on the gonads of eels? Also eels can take oxygen through their skin (cutaneously) which allows them to travel at night over wet ground, to colonize waterways that otherwise seem to have no connection to the sea where they are born? I came to learn that eels are sacred to Pacific Island peoples, replacing the snake in their creation myths, playing the role of monster-seducers (violating unsuspecting goddesses) and water guardians. The New Zealand longfin eel, is one of the most important creatures in the faith of the New Zealand Maori, and one of the longest-lived and largest freshwater fishes in the world (they can grown seven feet long, and have been aged at 104 years). I felt that I could devote years to eels--a thread that tied the oceans and the rivers together and made me feel like the world was held by one interconnected system of beauty, magic, and mystery.

In New Zealand, western scientists are trying to outfit large migratory eels with tags in order to track them on their oceanic journeys and find the place where they reproduce (in the case of the longfin eel the spawning location is thought to be over a thousand miles north near the island of New Caledonia). The native Maori are discouraged by the scientists' efforts. "Why do you need to know where they go?" they say, "what good would it do the eel to find the house where they breed?" The Maori have known for centuries that in the autumn the mature adult eels leave the rivers for the sea, and that in spring the young return up the rivers to feed and grow. The Maori imagined that the eels must spawn in the ocean, but the exact place was sacred--a mystery they wanted to retain.

Scientists are increasing their tagging efforts to find the spawning place of the American and European eels in the Sargasso Sea, but so far have learned very little. I suppose it is inevitable that one day they will develop the technology to track a fish the size of an eel through thousands of meters of water, and that someone will go down in a submersible and film the giant orgy (referred to by scientists as a panmixia) that is imagined to take place in the Sargasso Sea. But so far no one has found them.

Like the people I met in my travels, I get a good feeling from eels. The nights and early mornings I've spent with them during the fall migration have pulsed with energy and light. Standing in an eel fisherman's river weir in the cool September dark, watching the vein-like ropes of fish fill his womb of wood and stone, I've come to believe the Maori yarns about encounters they've had with the water guardians.

We allow ourselves to believe that nature can be explained. In the process we confine nature to those explanations. The eels, through their simplicity of form, their preference for darkness, and their grace of movement in the opposite direction of every other fish, have helped me to see things for which there is no easy classification, things that can't be quantified or solved, and get to the essence of experience. They have been my way back.

James Prosek's book, "Eels: From New Zealand to the Sargasso - The World's Most Mysterious Fish," can be ordered here.