BBC Wildlife Magazine

Clash of the titans

During a night dive, it wasn’t just a lack of light that almost caused Jo Caird to miss a dramatic fight for survival.

- JO CAIRD is a freelance journalist based in London. Read more of her work at

I’d always considered moray eels faintly ridiculous. Sure, those gaping jaws and beady eyes are unnerving at first glance. But after a few underwater encounters, a moray guarding its patch of coral looks less like a threatenin­g display, more like an awkward grin.

I was on a night dive in the Red Sea, when my scuba buddy gestured with his torch beam to get my attention. There on the reef was a giant moray ripping into the coral, scattering debris across the seabed. It seemed to be looking for something but we couldn’t work out what.

After a brief discussion employing a combinatio­n of recognised scuba hand signals and a few made up on the spot, we continued on our way, keen to see more of the reef before our air ran out. When we arrived back at that spot 20 minutes later, it was clear that leaving had been a mistake.

While we had been amusing ourselves looking at sea slugs, harlequin shrimp and sleeping pufferfish, the moray had found what it was looking for. Clamped in the eel’s jaws was an enormous octopus.

We may have missed the moment of capture (I’m still kicking myself to this day) but this fight wasn’t over. The moray – as long as I am tall, with a body the girth of my thigh – strained to keep hold of the octopus, as eight muscular tentacles wrapped tightly around its head and neck. The combatants writhed on the seabed until the water around us was dense with swirling sand. We were close enough to reach out and touch these animals. I was worried that my buddy might inadverten­tly do just that, as he strove to capture the moment. An underwater camera flash lights all the tiny floating particles, so getting a clean shot depends on being close enough to minimise the amount of detritus in the way. Fortunatel­y, the duelling duo remained oblivious to the paparazzo in their midst.

The octopus held out for a long time but, in the end, it was no match for its opponent’s powerful jaws. As the eel swam away to find a quiet place to eat. I pledged to never again underestim­ate a moray. They may have awkward grins, but that doesn’t stop them from having the last laugh.

S There on the reef was a giant moray eel, scattering debris across the seabed. T

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