Second only to sharks are our photos of sharp-fanged moray eels that most impress our non-diving friends on the “dangers” of the deep-sea realm. Of course, we know better but with the right techniques we can still capture these impressive creatures in all their various “moods” from “smiling” to a ferrous fanged grin. Various lighting techniques and camera angles will bring out the best in these funny guys.
The California moray eel is a temperate water creature only found from Santa Barbara southward, and only in great numbers around San Clemente and Catalina Islands (the frontside of Catalina is my favorite area). It is thought that they do not reproduce here but rather do so in warmer waters to the south and then the larvae drift northward to settle and grow, sometimes quite large — up to five feet long with heads the size of a cantaloupe. Most, however, have heads the size of your fist or smaller.
They love rocky reefs and seem to hang out in same areas as lobster. My theory is because octopus is one of the moray’s favorite foods, and octopus love to eat lobster, it would seem to me that lobster draw in the octopus, and the moray benefits by eating the octopus (lobster also benefit indirectly by the removal of the octopus).
You will rarely see them out in the open in daylight but rather they lounge in their holes with heads peering outward. Caution on approach only needs to be exercised as you will frighten them back in their hole. Some will move out to greet you, but this is only an indication that the specimen you are encountering is used to divers and likely has been fed by them in the past. Even so, do not irritate them with a poke or prod.
A note about feeding them: Do so at your own risk! Moray eels have a keen sense of smell but very poor eyesight. The eel could easily mistake your fingers for food!
In spite of the fact that the eels are almost always accompanied by cleaner shrimp, their lairs seem to be on the dirty side, so be careful not to stir up particles into the water as you move in for the shot.
The nice thing about moray eel shots is it generally is easy to get great photos with almost any camera set-up — from point and shoot to grand SLR dual strobe rigs. No fancy macro lens is needed (although sometimes useful) and wide angle is rarely necessary. You will likely be shooting fairly close, within three feet, so even the small strobe on a point and shoot will work (although a supplemental strobe or two is always helpful).
Don’t forget your mantra: Get low, get close, and shoot up.
Camera angles is where you can have a lot of fun. As long as you do not get too close, you should have quite a bit of time to experiment. You’ll notice that the moray is an open-mouth breather taking in big gulps of water with a gaping mouth opening wide on each inhalation. This gives you the opportunity for many stylized shots. Most of their sharp white teeth are on the roof of their mouths. When they open their mouth, be in the position to shoot at an upward angle capturing all those “viscous fangs.” Capture them looking at you at the same time and you’ll have a great shot. But there is another character to the moray you should capture. With mouth closed and from a side angle, the moray will seem to be “smiling.”
Harsh lighting ratios between two supplemental strobes can add drama to the shot or, with just one supplemental strobe, a powerful side angle could have the same effect. Personally, I prefer a softer approach, illuminating the moray more evenly. Morays have no scales but rather a smooth often mottled skin with interesting creases around the sides and underside of the head. A more subtle lighting can bring out this smooth texture and aspect of the animal.
One thing is for sure, take a lot of photos. A print collage of the various “moods” of the same eel will be an impressive addition to your wall and wow your friends.