Eels Big And Small Feature In Newport Aquarium's New Shipwreck Exhibit

Mar 5, 2020

Eels of varying sizes - from worm-like to five feet in length - are plunging the depths of the Newport Aquarium. Shipwreck: Realm of the Eels opens Friday with five shipwreck-themed zones.

Historically, shipwrecks were often tragedies, but over time the sunken vessels begin to spring forth with life, explains Senior Biologist Jen Hazeres. "In the end, life forms back again so it turns out to be something that creates life also."

There's lots of life to experience in this exhibit - green moray eels, batfish, lionfish, scorpionfish, spiney lobsters, frogfish, snowflake moray eels and blackedge moray eels, and the aquarium's first-ever flying gurnard, a large bottom-dwelling fish with expansive pectoral fins.

The aquarium's newest exhibit takes guests inside a sunken shipwreck.
Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU

Green moray eels are fascinating, Hazeres says. "If you can catch them swimming, they're really beautiful when they glide through the water."

They also have a mysterious quality. "They gape their mouths a lot and the teeth look a little scary but they're really going to hide as a first defense; they're not going to be very aggressive unless they feel trapped, like most animals, especially since they're vulnerable because their bodies are soft and smooth and they don't really have a lot of protection other than the structures (around them)."

A "ropes and rigging" exhibit includes a pop-up dome where visitors can feel immersed with the tank's inhabitants such as vermiculated spinefoot fish, blackedge moray eels, and lionfish.

"When you stand up in that," Hazeres describes, "...you are eye-level with venomous fish and they're pretty interested in you so generally they'll tend to come up toward you. I think that's a really neat view of those particular, beautiful animals."

The aquarium says its ship lost its treasure, replaced with jewel-toned fish.
Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU

The aquarium expects a treasure chest tank full of small jewel-colored fish will be a big draw. It offers a 270-degree view that's ideal for taking pictures and selfies.

One thing not to be missed, Hazeres says, is the ship's cargo hold tucked along a side wall. The first tank features dozens of small garden eels that somewhat resemble worms or small serpents.

A colony of curious garden eels emerge from their sandy burrows.
Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU

"They're little tiny, tiny eels. They burrow into the sand and all you ever see are their heads popping up."

If the exhibit is full of people, Hazeres says you should be sure to wait your turn to see the garden eels and their neighboring batfish and frogfish, which have lures over their mouths to attract and capture their prey. You may have to look very closely as the frogfish is an expert at camouflage.