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Dive Photo Guide


Ribbon Eels
 May 6, 2010 @ 04:10 PM (EST)

By Matt Weiss

Ribbon Eel (Rhinomuraena quaesita)


The ribbon eel is a striking subject that is easily recognized by its unique nostrils and intense coloration.  The gaudy eel can reach up to 130cm and has three different colorations:
  • juveniles are jet black with yellow dorsal fins,
  • females will turn almost entirely yellow
  • males are a light blue color with yellow fins and faces.

Two tubular anterior nostrils with fanlike extensions at each end accentuate the “flashy” appearance of the ribbon eel.  The species is what’s known as a protandrous hermaphrodite, meaning males can change sex to become females.

Ribbon Eel By Matt Weiss

Location:  Indo-Pacific.

Reef associated species that is non migratory. Often found in coral rubble or sandy areas.

1m - < 50m


The ribbon eel is often seen with only its head protruding from areas of coral rubble, its mouth open, “swaying” back and forth as it searches for small fish to prey on.  It will often retreat into its hole if scared.

Equipment Tips:

Go Macro

While the entire ribbon eel can be up to a foot long, often only a few inches of their head is visible. Therefore, macro photography is best technique for creating ribbon eel images. In fact, because of its striking appearance, the species is a trophy subject for many macro enthusiasts. Spotting a ribbon eel is not particularly difficult; keep an eye out when passing areas of coral rubble where they will have their face protruding from a hole.

Compact Camera
If using a compact camera, use your macro mode so that you can focus as close as possible to the ribbon eel.  Get as close to the eel as your camera lens minimum focus distance will allow and then use the zoom to frame your shot.  The ribbon eel is large enough that an additional close-up wet lens is not usually needed, but they can be used for additional magnification and creative shots (see below).

If you are using an SLR camera, a macro lens that can achieve 1:1 magnification should be your tool of choice. Both 60mm and 100/105mm macro lenses work well, but 100/105mm focal lengths may be preferable as they have a greater working distance. The greater working distance means you can achieve higher magnification of the subject at farther distances and this reduces your chance of scarring the ribbon eel.

As with all macro photography some source artificial lighting is required to bring out the colors of the ribbon eel and properly light it.
Nikon 105mm Macro
Nikon 105mm macro lens -- a great lens for shooting ribbon eels


Underwater Photography Tips

Get Close, But Be Careful!
Approach the ribbon eel slowly and carefully. Sudden movements might cause the eel to retreat into its hole and it may not appear again for a couple minutes. When, or if, it does reappear, it is usually much more skittish and more likely to retreat again.  Each ribbon eel seems to have its own personality, and if the individual you are trying to shoot is very shy, it might not be worth the effort that it takes for it to get used to you.

You can sometimes tell when the ribbon eel has grown wary of you because they will start to retreat before completely disappearing. If you notice that the eel has become aware of your presence, stop and try and frame your photograph from your current position. It helps if you plan your shot before approaching the ribbon eel so you don’t need to make too many adjustments to your camera or strobes once you are in position to shoot.

If you do not intrude too closely on the ribbon eel’s space, it will be happy to remain in its current spot, allowing the photographing ample time to create a great image.  That said, it often sways its head around in a frantic matter. This can make focusing a challenge when shooting with large apertures or at high magnification.
blue ribbon eel underwater photograph by Keri Wilk

Keep the Eye In Focus
Since the eel’s eyes are on the side of the face, a profile side shot or three quarter angle approach is the best way to ensure you get sharp focus on an eye.

As mentioned, the eel might be swaying back and forth. This can cause focusing problems because the eye is constantly moving.  One tip is to focus lock on the eye at one position by half clicking your shutter and waiting for it to move back into focus. Remain patient and eventually you will get a shot with a sharp eye.  This can be frustrating and may take many attempts.
Blue Ribbon Eel

Avoid Distracting Background
The ribbon eel is often found around coral rubble, and usually the rubble does not make for an interesting background in your eel portrait. Try avoiding the distracting background in your images by creating a black background. Additionally, the bright blues and yellows of the eel contrast beautifully with the black.

A slightly trickier method to removing the distracting background is to try a Bokeh shot, where only the eyes and/or nose are in focus and the background becomes blurred into a solid pleasing color.

female ribbon eel by Keri Wilk

Creative Ribbon Eel Photography Opportunities

The majority of ribbon eel shots are portraits either taken directly from the side or with a three quarter view.  Once you are happy with your “standard” ribbon eel portrait try a creative composition.

Although it’s a difficult shot,  direct head on shots can be interesting, especially when the mouth is agape and the anterior nostrils are completely “flared.” It’s important that your lens is almost exactly 90 degrees to the front of the ribbon eel. If it’s at an angle, most likely one of the eyes will be left out of the image.  This shot may take some time to get exactly right due to the fidgety nature of the ribbon eel.

If you see a ribbon eel out of its hole and free swimming, seize this opportunity!   Free-swimming ribbon eel shots can be spectacular when they capture the wavy movements the eel makes when swimming. 

Trying snoots or other creative lighting techniques with ribbon is a possibility since they don’t leave positions often. Even if they sway their face around, they seldom relocate.
Ribbon Eel snoot by Keri Wilk



  • Ribbon Eels are found in coral reef areas of the Indo Pacific
  • Their striking colors make them highly sought after macro subjects
  • Bring your underwater macro photography equipment when photographing ribbon eels
  • Approach ribbon eels cautiously and slowly so they do not retreat into their hole. Look for warning signs that they have noticed you.
  • Focus lock on the eye as ribbon eels frantically wave their face
  • Avoid distracting backgrounds by using either the black background or bokeh techniques
  • Get creative with head on compositions or full body shots if the opportunity presents itself


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