Fish in Focus:   Wolf-eel, Anarrhichthys ocellatus

The large puffy lips of this gruesomely attractive fish belong to the Wolf-eel, Anarrhichthys ocellatus. Published information about the behaviors of this fish are limited but its range is known to be southeastern Alaska to southern California. Wolf-eels live in rocky reef-type habitats from the intertidal zone down to about 740 feet. Their coloration starts with a burnt orange spotted look, and then changes to gray for males and brown for females. Both males and females have a dorsal fin that stretches from head to the end of their 6-8 foot long body, and both have spot patterns that appear to be individualized. Scales are imbedded in the skin. Their diet consists of sea urchins, crabs, scallops -- assorted crustaceans and mollusks. They eat these with the help of conical teeth (gripper-holders) in front and pulverizing molars in back. They are said to mate for life and live in the same cave for years. Personal experience, however, reveals a different story...

Sunrise Beach is a County Park 1.4 nautical miles north of the Tacoma Narrows in Washington State.  At this particular dive site, I have met 13 individual Wolf-eels, all with different spot patterns, scars, and personalities. Diving this site is a bit like going to a natural "zoo" of sorts - everyone is usually in the same place. I say "usually," because "always" is not accurate. Although they are believed to hang out in the same cave with the same mate, this diver has seen some individuals change homes more than once. In addition, I have seen the unthinkable -- wolf-eels living in trios! The trios I have seen included 2 males and 1 female. Wolf-eels, I believe have distinct personalities (or at least distinctive behavior). One juvenile in particular we called Wild Thing, because she would race out of her cave and straight for any diver who came near her lair. This of course was not a hostile action, but simply a conditioned response - divers carry urchins sometimes. As a photographer I have found some Wolf-eels to be extremely cooperative -- a large male actually allowed me to photograph the inside of his mouth! To my surprise, there appears to be a conical tooth on his palate!

People, of course, are a threat to this graceful animal -- traps and bottom trawls capture these fish. Their scary appearance means overreaction on the part of humans. The taking of Wolf-eels in Puget Sound is now prohibited thanks to divers and the cooperative posing of the Wolf-eels of Sunrise Beach.

Katrina Kruse is an avid scuba diver living and diving in the Pacific Northwest United States. Her work takes two directions: documenting marine animals in their natural habitat, and abstract work that showcases the sensual textures and designs inherent in marine life.

She lives with her husband Jeff, dog Wally, cats Cassiopeia and Little Boy, and several perch, bass, pumpkinseeds, crayfish, snowflake eels, etc.  Her experiences include over 800 dives in coldwater Washington State, and tropical dives in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Galapagos Islands, Guanaja, and Cozumel. She has lived in an underwater habitat in Florida.