THE ODD BEAUTY OF EELS

By Marie-Amélie Carpio

Capturing underwater beauty is routine for David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes, who have explored some of the most spectacular reefs on the planet. Yet a colony of garden eels they encountered off the Philippines coast brought back memories. “I began my career at National Geographic in 1971 with a story on garden eels in the Red Sea,” said Doubilet, a Nat Geo Explorer. Taking these images, he said, “was like coming home.”

Garden eels are both social and shy. They live in individual burrows yet form colonies and rise together out of their burrows to feed on plankton carried by the current. (Pictured above, a two-spot wrasse and a cornerfish, unthreatening to the eels, swim through a colony.)

“It’s mesmerizing to watch hundreds of eels waving and undulating in an ancient exotic dance,” says Doubilet. Yet “that ends abruptly when the eels detect the slightest movement of an unwelcome intruder. The vast colony vanishes back into the sand as if it never existed.”

To capture the scene above, the photographers had to—quite literally—disappear.

“Jennifer settled on the Trojan Horse strategy,” Doubilet explains. Hayes placed a rock the same size and color of their camera housing near the edge of the colony and left it for a day. The eels apparently accepted the rock—and rose from their burrows. The next morning, she put the camera housing there, left—and then filmed.

Dinner interrupted: A hawksbill turtle stops eating sponges to confront its reflection in the lens. The turtle finds the sponges tucked under coral.

The vibrant coral: A pink soft coral and a bone-colored chalice coral are surrounded by anthias off Pescador Island, near Cebu. The photographers say the healthiest reefs in the Philippines are as vibrant with life as any they have seen.

Trying to save the young: A titan triggerfish, exhausted after battling to defend the eggs in its nest, lies down in a last attempt to save its young from moon wrasses. The robust corals on this reef attract a stunning array of sea life.

National Geographic

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