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Conservation Status:  Safe for Now

AquaticCalifornia Moray

Gymnothorax mordax Bony Fishes

Aquarium of the Pacific - Online Learning Center - Species Print Sheet

California Moray
Not so intimidating when its mouth is closed | Used with permission of Ken Kurtis, Reef Seekers Dive Co.
California Moray
Not so intimidating when its mouth is closed | Used with permission of Ken Kurtis, Reef Seekers Dive Co.

Species Overview

Despite its snake-like appearance and lack of fins or scales, the California moray is a fish. They may have a frightening appearance; however, they are actually very timid fish. They have a keen sense of smell and poor eyesight. California moray have a second set of jaws inside their throat that spring forward to help them swallow. Small, pointed teeth are easily visible inside their mouth as their jaws open and close so they can breathe.

Species In-Depth | Print full entry

At the Aquarium

Our California moray eels live in one habitat with fish and in another with spiny lobster,

Geographic Distribution

Eastern Pacific Ocean from to Point Conception, California, south to Magdalena Bay, Baja California with the highest population densities in southern California, especially the southern Channel Islands.


California moray inhabit rocky areas to a depth of 40 m (130 ft),; however, they are most commonly found in waters from tide pools (juveniles) to a depth of about 30 m (65 ft). They usually stay between rocks and in crevices, emerge gin at night to hunt.

Physical Characteristics

California moray have a long snake-like body, small eyes, prominent teeth, tube nostrils, and a tapered tail. Round, uncovered gill openings are visible on either side of the head behind the jaw muscles. They do not have gill covers, scales, or pectoral fins. The skin is tough, leathery, and covered with mucus. Their sharp teeth face backward. Skin coloration ranges from dark or light brown to green and i3 is often mottled


to 5 feet 1.5 m (5 ft)


Nocturnal feeders and ambush predators, they prey on small fishes, crustaceans, and octopus. These eels use their strong sense of smell to seek out and ambush prey. Taste and touch are also important senses in their hunt for food. Their lower jaw is covered with taste bud-like structures used for sensing food. When food is tasted, the mouth immediately acts as a grabber.


Spawning is believed to occur only in warm waters off Baja California. It is believed that the temperature of California coastal waters is too cold for reproduction to occur. Eggs and sperm are broadcast spawned and fertilization is external. Larvae may drift as plankton for as long as a year before settling to the bottom of tidepools where the young eels spend some time


California moray tend to be shy and timid, hiding from sudden movement. They spend the day in their cave or crevice with only parts or their entire head showing, emerging when tempted by the smell of food or curiosity.
California moray have a mutualistic relationship with the red rock shrimp (Lysmata californica). Almost every moray crevice contains red rock shrimp. The eels allow the shrimp to clean off dead skin and parasites, and to clean their teeth and mouths of bits of food. The eels in turn, protect the shrimp from other predators but at times, they do eat the shrimp.