Will Byrnes's Reviews > Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish

Eels by James Prosek
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Jul 07, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: non-fiction, science, religion-and-sprituality, brain-candy
Read in June, 2010

Yeah I know, there are two reactions to the notion of eels. First there is fear when one thinks of large, oceanic moray eels popping up out of some hidden coral niche to snatch a chunk out of your leg as you swim by. Second is “eeewww.” This is for the slippery guys who inhabit rivers, streams and extreme restaurants. Get over it.

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James Prosek - from NPR

James Prosek’s Eels is a fascinating look at an unappreciated creature. Did you know that scads of eels migrate from freshwater streams and rivers to mid-ocean to spawn? The location of the Pacific spawning ground is still unknown, (or at least unrevealed) but they head for the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic. The author attempted to keep eels once, but their wanderlust resulted in them damaging themselves trying to escape. The urge to get back to the sea can also result in the major YouTube wet dream of giant eel balls (no, Beavis, not oversized fish nads, but masses of intertwined critters, cavorting in a movable orgy) rolling their way over dry land to get to the ocean. It is probably a good idea to step aside.

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from fishermensvoice.com

Prosek offers wonderful profiles of people for whom the eel is a major part of their lives, scientists, eelers, eco-warriers, South Sea Islanders. Ray Turner is a back-woods sort in Pennsylvania who makes a living as an eeler from a year’s worth of work and a few nights of harvest. A large part of the book looks at the significance of the eel in Maori culture. This is quite eye-opening. Think buffalo and Plains Indians. He writes also of how the Japanese regard the eel and manages to find a flight to the very remote Micronesian island of Pohnpei, mentioned to him by a few of the people he interviewed for the book. It is a place of great significance in eel legend. Eels are reputed to be able to make sounds like barking dogs and crying babies, and are ascribed magical powers beyond that. Way cool. He also looks at the activities of conservationists who are trying to spare these remarkable creatures from extinction.

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a Moray eel from howstuffworks.com - not just another pretty face

Catches of eels are plummeting worldwide, the result of dams, overfishing, and the usual human fouling of natural waterways, increasing the need for information about the eel life-cycle so that this important fish (yes, eels are fish) can be preserved.

Prosek’s book is, in short, great fun. By the time I finished I could honestly say, “I’ve been slimed,” but in a good way. This book was released in 2009. It is definitely worth your while trying to locate a copy and when you do, don’t let your chance to learn about these fascinating creatures slip away.

Review posted in June 2010 - updated December 2013

Cross-posted at Coot's Reviews

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Prosek's web site

There is a video on PBS featuring Prosek, The Mystery of Eels that is definitely worth a look, although it is refreshing to see that there is something that this renaissance man, (yeah, he plays music too, in addition to being an accomplished artist and scientist) is not great at, voice-overs. The content and visuals more than make up for Prosek's stolid delivery.

12/3/13 - Gillian Anderson, in full eel attire, promoting conservation - must see

6/19/14 - Definitely check out the link posted by Jaye in comment #33 - a fabulous, and amusing, science article on eels, and the wonderful, cinematic, LOL link posted by Richard in comment #35

12/5/14 - an interesting NY Times report on new science regarding our highly charged slippery pals - The Surprising Power of an Electric Eel’s Shock - by Carl Zimmer

10/5/16 - European researchers have been looking into when European eels arrive at their once-in-a-lifetime mating extravaganza in the Sargasso Sea On Epic Spawning Migration, Eels May Travel at Their Own Pace - by Stephen Yin - The Science section of the NY Times
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05/30/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-45 of 45) (45 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

I first discovered eels when I lived in Newfoundland. They are fascinating creatures.


Will Byrnes I was married to one once. Not that fascinating.

OK, OK, yes they are, clearly. The book was a revelation, one of the most fun reads I have had this side of Mary Roach.

Newfoundland? You certainly get around. I am guessing US military.


message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

an eel? tee hee....sure it wasn't a mermaid?

Oh, I like Mary Roach too. yes, military brat, military wife (ex) and retired Federal Employee for Air Force.
yes, I am just like a gypsy, can't really settle down.


Will Byrnes Definitely not a mermaid! Although Alice Hoffman might have something to say about that.

Sir, consider yourself saluted, sir. Or whatever.

Ok, I have to ask. Air Force, New Mexico. Have they landed? Are they living among us? Can you not settle down because you know too much?


message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

Oh, you are so funny! I did have unusual experiences in NM. Most everyone does. Not long after we arrived there I was asleep early when this flashing woke me up, some star was strobing me! think I spelled strobe wrong but anyway there was this flashing purple so I got the binoculars to look. Then I became obsessed with that star, planet (?) or is it the space station out there? I had to buy a telescope so I could study it more. I would sit out on the deck all night looking at that light in the sky and one night made it to the local star-gazers meeting where they had many telescopes set up and would tell you what you were looking at. I had a weird experience there too as one guy insisted on trying to sell me a tanzanite. I don't where he got the idea I would buy it. He followed me around making me very nervous so I had to get this other guy to walk me to my car. He told me my "star" was Sirius the dog star. I do not know for sure.
I had an incident one night with the black helicopters that do not exist. Hubby got up around 4 am as he had to leave for a TDY and was gone about five am. I peeked out and a black helicopter flew right up to my window on the second floor over the mountain and shined his brilliant blinding light right into my bedroom! He was a couple of feet from my window. I was livid and scared....searching for my gun. He was gone before I could find it, good thing for him. I guess they got mad as they had seen me with my telescope and binoculars so many times. You know they do not exist.
If you ever get to NM I am sure you will have strange experiences there too. Its great fun most of the time. I could probably write a book about it or a collection of short stories.
thanks for your salute but it really should be for my son an AF pilot. Have you been in the military too? they would never take me as I am 4F.


Will Byrnes I had a draft number of 160. In the relevant year for me, I would have been at risk, as my first try at college had not gone so well, and there had been a passel of other personal things going on. However, working at the Post Office adjacent to Grand Central Station, I had a rather nasty accident when I was 18. When I went to my draft physical at Whitehall Street in lower Manhattan some time later, I gleefully suggested to the doc that he take a closer look at my right forearm, which still held two metal plates and a bone graft. 1Y it was. I was not a fan of the Vietnam War, and was not eager to let anyone use my rather tall self for target practice. So, having made a short story long, nope, no military service for me. I have a world of respect for folks who serve, but even had I wanted to, I would not have been able to. My father missed serving in WW II as he had three kids and was getting on, relatively, at the time. (I am the last of five) My brother volunteered for two years in the Army. If he saw an combat in Nam he never spoke of it. I doubt he went anywhere scarier than Germany.

And I would definitely love to check out NM eventually. I quite enjoyed your tales of black choppers, (Blackhawks? I think the proper response to a helicopter shining a light into one's window is to moon them, or at least flip them the bird) but the scariest item in your note is the creep who pursuing with tanzanite. Well, second scariest. The scariest is that you went looking for a gun. That, also, is outside my personal experience. The only guns I have to contend with are of the radar variety.

Perhaps you should work on writing some stories from your experiences.

You must be very proud of your Top Gun.


Will Byrnes I am a dispatcher for a security company. It is not exactly my chosen profession but that is a story for another night. Time to head back to work.


Will Byrnes Please do. It is such a revelation.


message 9: by Nancy (new)

Nancy You read the most unusual books, Will. Great review!


message 10: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks Nancy. It was a really fun read.


Ms.pegasus Will, thanks for the suggestion. Will definitely add this to my "to read" list which keeps getting longer and longer (I also have more titles in a paper notebook that I keep on the table when I read the morning newspaper).

I also have an amusing eel story. We were on one of those snorkeling excursions in Maui. There was this eel resting in some sort of crevice. This small fish kept swimming around and annoying him. Finally, the eel must have gotten fed up. He swam away, and the fish occupied the now vacant crevice.

Happy reading.


message 12: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes I have had the pleasure of visiting Maui, although no snorkeling was involved. Sounds like a fun experience for you. Less so for the eel.


message 13: by Lilo (new)

Lilo What do you mean "eeewww"? I think these eels are real cuties, but I agree that they may not make the best of pets.


message 14: by Nicole~ (new)

Nicole~ Mmm, Sushi!


message 15: by Will (last edited Dec 02, 2013 12:32AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes As Prosek makes clear, Japan is a major consumer of these critters. Enjoy!


message 16: by Preeti (new) - added it

Preeti Great review - I definitely want to check this out. Sounds right up my alley. And I'll have to look at the PBS video too.


message 17: by Cathy (new)

Cathy DuPont Will wrote: "I was married to one once. Not that fascinating.

OK, OK, yes they are, clearly. The book was a revelation, one of the most fun reads I have had this side of Mary Roach.

Newfoundland? You certain..."


Ha! to you, Will. Glad you finally were able to let that slippery eel slither right through your hands.

These comments were so much fun to read! I missed this one somehow, someway.

Bookend...very funny. Might have eaten a cousin on the cover of the book...just this past Saturday. Ummmm, good stuff!


message 18: by Lynne (new)

Lynne King Will, A great review as ever.

You do indeed read some unusual books. I'm not too sure that I'm into eels though.


message 19: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes I wasn't either


message 20: by Caroline (new) - added it

Caroline Love your review, love the book cover. Darn it. It's not library available though. I shall have a look at the video you suggest in the next day or so...


message 21: by Jaye (new)

Jaye I've been reading this Spineless Wonders Strange Tales from the Invertebrate World by Richard ConniffSpineless Wonders: Strange Tales from the Invertebrate World on and off for years.
I wish I never read the chapter about houseflies.
In the chapter on SLIME EELS (a.k.a. hagfish ) the author states the eels are more disgusting than houseflies.
A quote from the book,
"Having cleaned itself, Martini's slime eel swam around the tank with its outraged head just above the surface.
"There you see the adorable little piggy face," Martini commented.
In truth, what struck me at the moment was not its adorable pigginess, but the slime eel's unmistakable potential for human psychosexual trauma. "

I leave you there.


message 22: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Now I have to read that book.


message 23: by Jaye (new)

Jaye It's kinda fun how the goodreads bug is floating all these old reviews. I missed this eels one you did (when it was up the first time around).
ok, maybe it won't be fun forever, eventually it might be like the vertical hold on a tv got stuck.


message 24: by Jeff (new)

Jeff When I think of Eels I think of sushi, but that's just me.

Fun review, Will!


message 25: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Jeff


message 26: by Cathy (new)

Cathy DuPont Jeff wrote: "When I think of Eels I think of sushi, but that's just me.

Fun review, Will!"


And fun comment, Jeff.


message 27: by Richard (new)

Richard This review is interesting with excellent visuals.


message 28: by Jan (new)

Jan Rice "(N)ot just another pretty face," ha ha ha!


message 29: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes :-)


☺Trish I'm with Nicole and Jeff: unagi sushi with eel sauce = Yum! ☺Thanks for the riveting review, Mr. Byrnes!


message 31: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes ☺Trish wrote: "I'm with Nicole and Jeff: unagi sushi with eel sauce = Yum! ☺Thanks for the riveting review, Mr. Byrnes!"
Thanks for wriggling by


message 32: by Jaye (new)

Jaye Something I read today:
"Meals with eels
You may want to sit down before I tell you this – the dragon roll at your favorite sushi place is not made out of real dragons."
here:http://earthsky.org/earth/lifeform-of...

Nice pictures too.


message 33: by Soumen (new)

Soumen Daschoudhury Your choice of books is pretty varied, isn't it? I recently finished a book 'Waterland' by Graham Swift (which I rated 5 stars) where eels form an integral part of the story. There is some analysis on the slimy fish in Waterland too.


message 34: by Richard (new)

Richard And beware of the insidious Shrieking Eels:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tfo3nE...


message 35: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Soumen wrote: "Your choice of books is pretty varied, isn't it? I recently finished a book 'Waterland' by Graham Swift (which I rated 5 stars) where eels form an integral part of the story. There is some analysis..."
Sounds like slippery fun


message 36: by Lily (new)

Lily Wow!!! Great review and amazing links.


message 37: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Lily. My GR pals have added some outstanding links here. They are so cool.


Alana Alana Francis Alana Francis This is stupid but it is non of my business


Ms.pegasus Thanks so much for recommending this book, Will. It was great. Combined my curiosity about the science with my love of cultures and folklore. Viewed the video too! Very good, nice summary after having read the book.


message 40: by Brit (new) - added it

Brit Cheung Eel looks eerie,so much like a snake.
But the two vary in their tails. Eel's tail is flat while a snake's round.
I caught one as a kid and it's so slithery...:)
Just cannot imagine how brave I was then!


message 41: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes it's so slithery
It is what they are known for. The English-language expression is "slippery as an eel."

I am not at all surprised at your bravery. Eeeeeeeeels are amazing and fascinating. This book opened my eyes to these impressive critters.


message 42: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes The eels this book focused on are a different sort. The moray is, I believe, a purely salt water critter. The ones here are fresh water based, then head to sea to spawn.

While it definitely sounds like a wonderful thing to be able to feed these beasties, but getting bitten cannot be much fun.


message 43: by William (last edited Oct 07, 2016 05:37AM) (new)

William I was bitten, not badly, by a green moray eel while scuba diving Sting Ray City in Grand Cayman many years ago. I was feeding it, and the sting rays, as you do on these dives. The rays behave like friendly but hungry dogs, and have a boney mouth without teeth that can sprain fingers badly, if you aren't careful. The moray has teeth like little short needles, and two went through my glove into my finger - not painful, and easy to remove. I have a picture somewhere.... https://gyazo.com/322a485c31b17171202...


message 44: by Jesica (new)

Jesica I used to like catching fresh water eels when I was a child


message 45: by Jesica (new)

Jesica There's a traditional games in my country every independence days for kids to catch eels. never thought much of them, though..


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