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I AM FORTUNATE TO HAVE A RANGE of sea loch dives in my back yard. In under an hour, I can be in the waters of Loch Long having a bimble around boulder-strewn reefs that are brimming with life.
Among the many creatures I see on most dives are the conger eels that make their homes in the nooks and crannies of the reef.
Conger eels are not the prettiest or cutest fish you're likely to come across. In fact, with their nostril tubes, their big lips and steely eyes, it could be said that they have faces only a mother could love.
Resemblance to snakes in both appearance and gait doesn't help in the popularity stakes either. However, having observed congers on many dives over a few years, and having learned more about their remarkable life journeys, I have developed a soft spot for them.
Congers are large fish and can grow to more than 2m long. The absence of scales accentuates their length, and they are impressive when seen swimming free. They move lightning-fast and are brilliantly agile when chasing fish in the crevices under large boulders.
Their agility, and tremendous power comes from their tails, a fusion of dorsal, anal and tail fins. Their pectoral fins are relatively far forward towards the head, and are used for fine manoeuvring.
The sea loch congers are very curious and will emerge from their lairs as soon as divers appear. They seem drawn to light, and will edge towards the beam of a torch in fits and starts, as if stalking it.
Congers usually hunt at night. I have only rarely seen them swimming in open water during the day. But on one occasion an eel, alerted by my torch, dashed out and snatched a goby from a small shoal hovering around the entrance to the conger's lair.
Despite the fearsome reputation congers seem to have among anglers (though wouldn't you get angry with a hook through your lip?), I have never experienced any direct hostility from them. They seem content to interact, perhaps attracted by the opportunity to scavenge for any creatures disturbed by my presence.
In Loch Long, the congers live under boulders in water of only 9 or 10m, so can be seen by beginner and Open Water divers. It amazes me to think that congers reach depths of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of metres when they return to the oceans to breed. But, sadly, it is when they return to the oceans that they die, after spawning.
The eel larvae drift from the deep to shallower waters, where they develop and grow to maturity. This takes at least five years, and some congers can wait 15 years until they reach maturity and are in prime breeding condition.
I have been diving in Loch Long for only a few years, so I like to think that the congers I have got to know are just youngsters, and will remain in my backyard shallows for a good long time to come.
• Commercial fishermen have caught conger eels weighing up to 115kg
• Conger larvae are only 7.5cm long
• Congers can stay alive for long periods out of water
• They batter crustaceans against rocks before eating them
• Congers’ teeth fall out as they prepare to breed
• There is a British Conger Club, though it’s for anglers (they do say that they return the congers to the sea!)