Episode 7: The Eel Ordeal

Explore the ecology of eels and learn about their harrowing migration from an eel expert at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island offsite link



Three glass eels. Text reads, "Episode 7: The Eel Ordeal," with logos for NOAA, Coastal Ecosystem Learning Centers, and Octonauts.

Glass eels (juvenile European eels) found in the Shannon estuary, Ireland. (Image credit: Courtesy of Dr. William O'Connor/ECOTRUST. By permission)

Audio file

MUSIC: [Octonauts theme music] Octonauts, to your stations! Barnacles! Kwazii! Peso!

HOST: You’re listening to "NOAA & the Octonauts" — an episode-by-episode discussion of the children’s TV show The Octonauts, which features a crew of quirky and courageous undersea adventurers. Their mission: to explore the world’s ocean, rescue the creatures who live there, and protect their habitats. 

MUSIC: [Octonauts theme music] Explore! Rescue! Protect! Octonauts!

HOST: Our monthly podcast brings together experts from inside and outside of NOAA to help you — and the children you care about — learn more about the real-life versions of the Octonauts sea creatures and the ocean they call home. 

This podcast is hosted by NOAA’s Office of Education and the Coastal Ecosystem Learning Center Network. Today, I’m your host, Gabrielle Corradino. The podcast today we are talking about the episode, The Eel Ordeal. The Octonauts watch as a school of eels migrate together. When Captain Barnacles, Shellington, Peso, and Kwazii try to get a closer look at the eels the Gup-A, it crashes. As they travel on foot, the team finds a young eel with an injured tail. The Octonauts help the eel make the rest of the journey up the river to the lake.

Now, Before we begin our chat, let’s set the stage for today’s deep dive. Current estimates have suggested that there are about 800 different species around the world. Their size can range in length from a few inches to up to 13 feet long. Eels can be found in fresh or saltwater and are able to swim by making waves which travel the length of their bodies.

The group of eels in the Octonauts episode are likely the European eel or American eel. These eels are found in ... you guessed it ... Europe and North America. Both species are known to migrate from marine habitats back to freshwater. The American eel's complex life history begins far offshore in the Sargasso Sea, in the Atlantic Ocean. From there, the young eels drift with the ocean currents and then migrate inland into streams, rivers, and lakes. This journey may take many years to complete with some eels travelling further than 3,000 miles. After reaching these freshwater bodies they feed and mature for approximately 10 to 25 years before migrating back to the Sargasso Sea in order to complete their life cycle.

There are ongoing efforts to monitor these fascinating eel migration each year, as tracking their numbers or abundances can tell us about the health of the local waterway. There is even a NOAA-sponsored citizen science group called the Hudson River Eel Project that tracks the migration of the American eels that are born in the Atlantic Ocean and move into North American estuaries.

Our guest today is here to answer all of our questions about the different types of eels! Cady Breslin is here to share with us a bit about her work at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. The aquarium is over 68,000 square feet and features marine life native to the North Carolina coastal regions. And they even have a sea turtle assistance and rehabilitation center located on the island. 

Thank you so much for being here Cady. Can you tell us more about your role at the North Carolina Aquarium?

CADY BRESLIN: Absolutely, thank you so much for having me, I am excited to be here. I am a public program educator at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. That means that I interpret, or explain, the habitats, animals, and other ecological concepts to our guests as well as lead our interns that we have as they learn about marine education and interpretation. 

HOST: As a public program educator, which Octonauts’ job do you have? Are you a researcher like Shellington, an oceanographer like Inkling, a systems analyst like Dashi, a leader like Barnacles.

CADY BRESLIN: I think I would say that I am a mix of Shellington the otter as a biologist and Professor Inkling as an educator! I love to study ecosystems and organisms and then teach others about what I learn.

HOST: We appreciate you being here to discuss the Octonauts team’s adventure rescuing a young eel. Does your job involve working with eels?

CADY BRESLIN: We currently house a Spotted Moray Eel in one of the habitats in our Sea Treasures Gallery and we often catch American Eels in our catch and release fishing programs off our Soundside Pier. I learn about the various eel species we display in house, as well as those we encounter in outdoor programs so that I can tell our guests about them.

HOST: Wow, so you actually have the American eel which is the eel from the Octonauts episode. That is so interesting! Can you tell us a little bit more about what the eels feel like? Or weather or not the eels have scales, like fish, or are they smooth? What type of texture do they have?

CADY BRESLIN: That is an interesting question. Most eels feel like a very strong wet noodle or I have even hear of a hotdog covered in dish soap. They typically either do not have any scales or have very small scales and their skin appears smooth to the eye. Eels are covered in a coating of slime that helps protect their skin from germs and helps them escape predators. 

HOST: Cady can you tell us what eels eat? I was doing some of my own research and I read that eels are usually nocturnal, meaning they are awake at night. Does this impact how they can hunt for food?

CADY BRESLIN: Most eels are primarily carnivorous, meaning that they eat meat that they have to hunt and catch prey. Being nocturnal allows an eel to avoid large predators and sneak up on its prey. Like us, eels have special adaptations, or things that they do or parts of their bodies that help them survive and thrive in their environments. One adaptation we have is our teeth. We have different shapes of teeth so we can bite and chew up our food in the most effective ways, like using our flat molars for crushing. In my opinion, one of the coolest adaptations some eels have is their pharyngeal jaw. What that means is that they have a special extra jaw the eel has stored inside its throat that bites and helps pull its prey into its mouth since eels have no hands to hold food like us to hold their food. There are even some movie aliens that have been inspired by this adaptation.

HOST: Wow, I had no idea that eels had a special jaw to help them hold onto food. That is really cool. Captain Barnacles mentions that the eels face many “dangers” on the way back up the river and into the lake. Can you explain or give us an idea what Captain Barnacles may mean by dangers that the eels may be facing?

CADY BRESLIN: Captain Barnacles is absolutely right. As I mentioned before, these eels have special adaptations, and they help them in their ecosystems. The type of eel in this episode spends most of its life in calm lakes, most of the time. So most of their adaptations are complimentary to living in these calm lakes. Some dangers that they will face on their migration could be fast and rocky river waters, or obstacles on land like holes or debris. Extra barriers, like the hole in the episode make it really difficult or sometimes even impossible for these eels to complete their journey. Like the Octonauts, when we are in natural spaces, we can make sure we only leave footprints and only take photos and memories so that we are not impacting those natural spaces for the animals like the eels. 

HOST: Really important point, Cady, and something for all all of us to keep in mind. Cady, can you describe any other ways people may be impacting eels?

CADY BRESLIN: Absolutely, we know that some people catch eels for food or on accident and eels are also impacted by the loss of habitat. We might not see this directly, but if we cut off their migration route by building on natural areas, or add debris to the water, or even are very loud in their natural habitats we make it harder for eels to survive and thrive. However, lots of people are doing positive things like studying eels like the Octonauts to better understand what different types of eels need to be successful in their natural habitats. This research helps us protect eel's habitats and way of life. 

HOST: Cady can you share a bit about this research that you just mentioned? Is there any particular eel research going on either with NOAA or at the North Carolina Aquarium?

CADY BRESLIN: The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island and its sister facilities, the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, as well as Jennette’s Pier’s. Our mission is to inspire appreciation and conservation of our aquatic environments. We do this for specifically for eels by educating the public on eel species with our programs and exhibits signage. When people learn about how cool eels are they want to help protect them.

NOAA also helps inform people about eels through their exploration footage and research to understand how eels migrate and use their natural habitats. All the aquariums in North Carolina work with NOAA to teach people about environmental issues like climate change and marine debris and how we can all help solve these issues because every person can help our amazing planet.

HOST: What a wonderful and positive message to wrap up today's show with. Thank you so much, Cady, for answering all of our eel questions! We really appreciate your time and help on our show.

MUSIC: [Octo-Alert]

HOST: That’s the Octo-Alert. We want to hear your questions. What eel question would you like to ask an expert? We’ll make sure to pass these questions along to our NOAA scientists and aquarium educators. Just head to NOAA’s Office of Education Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to post your questions and we will post their answers!

Well, that’s it for today’s show! To learn more about freshwater and saltwater eels make sure to head to the North Carolina Aquarium, and check out their website at https://www.ncaquariums.com. To get involved with the NOAA sponsored Hudson River Eel Project citizen science project, click the link in the transcript of this podcast.

MUSIC: [Bubbles]

HOST: I’m Gabrielle Corradino from NOAA's Office of Education and this has been season two for NOAA & The Octonauts. See you next time!

MUSIC: [Creature Report]

Kwazii, activate creature report!
Creature report, creature report, creature report!

Baby eels are born at sea
But when they grow up they leave
Young eels do anything it takes
To swim up rivers and into lakes
Sometimes on their journey there
They go over land where they can breath the air

Dance break!

Go eels, go eels, go eels

We’re done with our mission. Octonauts, at ease, until the next adventure!