Last summer, while a group of us were swimming in the pool of water located under the waterfall below our house (yes, I realize how lucky I am that I can say that), one of my friends dove deep under the water and quickly bobbed up, proclaiming he saw what appeared to be a dead snake hovering on the rocks.
At the time, we kind of chuckled and blew it off. Why would a dead snake not float up? Must have been an optical illusion.
A few weeks later, we hiked back down and this time, I brought a swimming mask. I dove down, and whoaaaaaaaa.
There were several long, gray creatures lazily floating in the water, looking at back with me. With eel eyes, eel faces, eel bodies.
Growing up on the Texas Gulf Coast, I had *no* idea there was such a thing as freshwater eels. I had snorkeled in the ocean and seen firsthand the very beautiful stripe-y zebra eel off the coast of Oaxaca. But eels in…rivers? Was this some freaky genetic event going on in our river?
No, I’m happy to report: Lo and behold, it was the American Eel. After a bit of internet research, I decided wow, I need to learn more, so I read the strangely fantastic book: Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Mysterious Fish.
Why the most “mysterious?” No one knows where the American Eel — and similar “catadromous” species — spawn. The best guess is somewhere out near Puerto Rico. Then, the babies, known as glass eels, feverishly head for freshwaters, swimming up rivers like the Hudson, eventually working their way up farther and farther upstream, landing into the smaller brooks and creeks that feed into the larger rivers. They can absorb oxygen through their skin, so therefore have no problem slithering on to dry land as they make their way up the creeks.
Once they find a suitable spot, they stop searching and make little eel homes, living in one spot for decades, until finally deciding to venture back to the ocean, migrating, going back the way they came. The eels I spotted in our river were mature eels, like the one pictured in this post.
In some areas in and around the Hudson and Delaware Rivers, fishermen build eel weirs — special v-shaped traps — to catch the eels as they migrate back to the sea, and post-hurricane is the best time to catch them. So I knew that after the extremely high waters caused by Hurricane Irene in the fall, our eels were likely leaving their roosts, and heading to their secret ocean love hotels.
But would any come back? Did the dirty, debris-filled floods kill many of them? What will this year be like?
These are hardy creatures, it turns out. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation is reporting a record breaking year for returning baby glass eels! Hooray!
“The eels arrived a month earlier and in far greater numbers than they have since the project started in 2008,” the DEC reported in a press release.
Now, all I have to do is wait a few months, so I can swim down and look at my new eels, who yes, will all get their own names, and possibly be photographed and documented extensively on this very blog.
(Live in the Hudson Valley and want to help count eels? Join the NY DEC’s Citizen Science American Eel Research project.)