A hagfish swims away at Shark Alley

Sea life: Hagfish

I’ve only seen a hagfish once, and that was on a dive on the wreck of the MV Aster in Hout Bay. It was lying prone on the deck of the ship behind the mast, and was totally indifferent to my photographic advances. It was fortunate, it turns out, that the fish didn’t take offence at my presence, because the defensive mechanism of hagfish is to produce litres of slime. This would typically coat the gills and business end of a predator, and possibly even the hagfish itself. In order to avoid being suffocated by its own slime, hagfish are able to knot their bodies and slide the knot forward, thus scraping the slime off themselves.

Hagfish on deck of the MV Aster
Hagfish on deck of the MV Aster

Hagfish are remarkably abundant in the deep ocean, and play a vital role in breaking down carcasses of creatures such as whales. They are usually the first to arrive at a whale fall. Video footage I have seen of hagfish eating is extremely unattractive. They have no actual teeth (or jaws, or eyes), which limits what they can eat, but burrow their heads into soft flesh in order to ingest it.

The hagfish was fast asleep
The hagfish was fast asleep

These aren’t great photos (the conditions were not ideal and judging by the motion blur nor was my control of my position in the water) but it was a fairly unusual sighting, so I thought I’d share.

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Clare

Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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