Moray Eel Attack: Moray bites diver and eats his thumb!

March 17, 2010
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It was reported in the media as a Moray Eel Attack or Moray Eel Attacks Scuba Diver! This was incorrect. The headline Moray bites diver was closer to the truth. But what about scuba divers feeding Moray Eels? Giant Moray Eels look sinister and menacing. They are the gangsters of the reef. Two meters of solid muscle with alien like jaws at the sharp end, lined with razor sharp teeth that are built for gratuitous violence. There’s no question that every diver has at one time wondered if they are dangerous and can bite. Moray Eels are ferocious hunters, and are one of the Kings of the reef. Giant Morays have few predators, apart from larger Morays, large Groupers, and man.

Warning: This article contains some graphic photos and video that some people might disturbing.

What about the story of the scuba diver at East of Eden in the Similan Islands, who had his thumb bitten off and eaten by the famous Giant Moray called Scarface? Is it a true story? Yes. How did it happen? Was it unprovoked? Read on. We have the official story straight from the guy who lost his thumb back in March 2005. This is an exclusive and the only time the official story has been written up on the Internet. Here are the real unadulterated facts of what happened, not rumors and hearsay.

The Giant Moray is called Scarface, and also known as Ed, Maureen, or Emma. She lived under a table coral at a depth of 16 meters at the dive site named East of Eden in the Similan Islands, Thailand. The site is also known as Morning Edge.

Scarface the Giant Moray Eel under her Table Coral lair

Scarface the Giant Moray Eel under her Table Coral lair

For several years in the early 2000s, dive guides and instructors had been delighting their guests by taking them to see Scarface. Many dive masters would take food down for her, usually meat of some description that was left over from meals onboard their liveaboards. Scarface had become accustomed to divers, and would never move far from her lair. When she did move, it would usually be to swim towards approaching divers looking for food. Morays are usually quite shy and reclusive creatures preferring to stay within holes in the rocks or coral, with just their heads poking out. It is in fact quite rare to see them free swimming, which is why the dive at East of Eden was such a hit with divers. Divers would kneel in the sand circling her lair with cameras ready, as Scarface would swim from diver to diver, pausing to sniff the water for any sign of food. She would nuzzle divers hands looking for meat. Divers could stroke her, pet her, and tickle her tummy. Remember, this is a two-meter Moray Eel with some serious equipment at the biting end. The only thing the Moray was thinking about was food.

Matt, a dive instructor, was working onboard the MV Queen Scuba Similans liveaboard boat as an underwater videographer. He’d been on the trip five or six times, and knew Scarface quite well. He’d first seen her fed a year or two before when he was a diving on The Viking of the Orient. Matt had been taking food down regularly when he was diving at East of Eden. He wanted to get some quality shots of Scarface free swimming. The customers loved it when they watched the video in the evenings, especially when she would take the food straight out of Matt’s hand. Matt’s choice of food to take down was usually sausages, basically because they were left over from breakfast on the boat, and didn’t break up underwater. It was unfortunate for Matt that sausages look like fingers.

The day it happened Matt went diving at East of Eden with his friend Bex, who was working on the boat as a dive master. It was a day like any other day, but the excitement level was high as they knew they were going to see the Giant Moray again. Matt had had some food wrapped in a plastic bag in his BCD pocket, and he entered the water with his video camera and Bex. The first part of the dive was uneventful, and Matt and Bex hurried towards the table coral. The visibility was around twenty meters, and as the coral loomed into sight, Matt and Bex could see Scarface swimming out to greet them with her head moving from side to side and her huge mouth gaping. This was normal, as Scarface would swim out to investigate any divers close to her table coral lair. Matt got a few shots, and after a minute or two, with no food being offered, Scarface returned to the table coral and adopted the posture of a normal Moray Eel, her body hidden with just her head poking out. To coax her back out, Matt decided to get the food from his BCD pocket. He gave the camera to Bex and signaled for her to film him getting the food out to attract the Moray. This was the first time Bex had ever held a camera underwater. Matt was struggling somewhat to get the food out of the plastic bag because the current was making it awkward to find the opening of the bag to get the sausages out. Scarface had noticed the bag of food had appeared, and approached Matt as he hovered close by concentrating on finding the open end of the bag. Scarface bumped him a few times, she could smell the food and was getting impatient. Matt gently pushed her away and focused on the bag. Morays have poor eyesight, but a great sense of smell. She persisted in trying to find the food that she knew was hers.

Initially Matt just felt some pressure on his left thumb and tried to pull his hand away. That’s when Scarface clamped down hard to get a better grip on Matt’s thumb. It was all happening so quickly now. Matt knew he needed to get his thumb out of her mouth, but wasn’t prepared for what happened next. He was looking at the Moray attached to his hand as blood started to cloud the water. Shit. He jammed two fingers from his right hand into her mouth and tried to prize her jaw open to release his thumb. More blood swirled into the water as he lacerated his fingers on her razor sharp teeth. Scarface wanted whatever she had in her mouth and she wasn’t going to let go. A second or two later she thrashed her head from side to side and a sickening popping sound reverberated through the water.

Scarface departed and all seemed calm. Matt looked down at his hand to see torn flesh and the bone of his thumb knuckle. The thumb was gone. Matt looked back towards the Moray to see her gulping his thumb down as she retreated with her booty back to her table coral. Holy shit, he thought. Bex was wide-eyed and motionless. She couldn’t believe what had just happened. She’d just videoed one of her best friends having his thumb bitten off by a Giant Moray Eel.

Matt didn’t panic, and made a slow and controlled ascent to the surface. At one point the tour leader on Queen Scuba, Claude, swam past him with a group of divers. Matt showed Claude his hand and indicated he had a problem. Claude smiled and carried on the dive, assuming Matt was joking around. As Matt approached the surface, the water started turning red. There was lots of blood. On surfacing Matt had a look at his hand with the missing thumb. Blood was squirting 50cm in the air from where his thumb used to be. It was like a fountain as the tiny artery was ripped completely open. Concerned about the blood loss, Matt yelled loudly for the dinghy to come quickly to pick him up. The dinghy driver looked horrified as he saw the extent of Matt’s injury and all the blood in the water. Back on the boat a compress was applied and the bleeding was reduced significantly. The evacuation plan ran perfectly. After a quick stop on one of the islands for some first aid, Matt was on a speedboat with Bex to the mainland. A taxi was waiting at the pier to take them to the Bangkok Phuket Hospital, a couple of hours away, where Matt’s hand was quickly operated on to close the wound.

The day after the accident

The day after the accident at the Bangkok Phuket hospital

Matt spent a week in the hospital, and DAN Insurance were fantastic in picking up the bill. They also paid for the evacuation from the Similan Islands. The total bill was around half a million Baht.

While in the hospital, the Doctor who treated Matt told him about a procedure which had had been performed by a colleague of his at their sister hospital in Bangkok. He said that his colleague, a specialist hand micro surgeon, might be able to perform a toe graft operation, and explained to Matt what was involved. He said he could amputate one of his toes, and graft it onto his hand to replace his missing thumb. All the nerves, tendons, and blood vessels would be connected, and essentially, it would look and work like a new thumb. Matt without hesitation decided to go for the operation, but was told he would need to wait several months until his hand had healed and no infection was present.

Toe graft operation to replace missing thumb

Toe graft operation to replace missing thumb

It took a long time to heal, five months in all. The operation was of course going to be expensive. It would involve two teams of micro surgeons with one team working on Matt’s foot while the other team worked on his hand. The operation was estimated to take around six hours.

Matt’s professional scuba diving insurance with Divers Alert Network (DAN Europe) didn’t cover the operation. The DAN team were fantastic though, and suggested that although they couldn’t officially cover the costs of the operation, Matt should apply to the DAN benevolence fund. They answered within days, and gave the go-ahead for the operation. They agreed to cover all costs, which were around six hundred thousand Baht.

A month after the toe graft operation Matt was back diving. It took several months before he had any feeling in his new thumb, but soon it was almost as good as his old one. He can feel it, he can move it, and these days he doesn’t even notice. As for having a toe missing, again, he doesn’t notice.

Needless to say, Matt no longer feeds Moray Eels, or any other marine life. He still occasionally dives East of Eden, and always keeps an eye out for his old friend Scarface. Matt doesn’t have any ill feeling at all towards the Moray. He knows it was his own silly fault, and that he shouldn’t have been feeding her in the first place. It was a painful way to learn a lesson he already knew.

Bex, went onto become a professional underwater videographer on Phi Phi Island, Thailand. The shaky footage she took that day found its way onto the Internet, and to several Discovery Channel and Animal Planet documentaries.

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