'Gruesomely attractive' wolf eels at home at Georgia Aquarium

Some visitors turn away from the wolf eels, the newest residents of the Georgia Aquarium, and say terrible things to senior biologist Kerry Gladish like, “Oh, God. Why display these? They’re so ugly.” Other visitors to the Cold Water Quest gallery totally disagree, arguing they’re so ugly, they’re cute.

Count Gladish among the latter. “They’re so ugly, you gotta love them,” says Gladish, who on Monday morning was feeding shrimp pieces to the six adolescents. “They’ve got a face only a mother could love.”

Their oversized heads feature bulging brows and pronounced puffy lips, like cartoon fish, that hide long, sharp, canine-like teeth in the front. That’s the better to prey on hard-shelled invertebrates such as crabs and mollusks in the wild.

Patterns of circular spots run along their long, tubular bodies, which can grow to 8 feet long and can reach a weight of 40 pounds.

The North American Native Fishes Association Web site calls wolf eels “gruesomely attractive.” Maybe this mixed message has something to do with why they tend to stay tucked away in caves or crevices on the North Pacific’s rocky reefs, like they know they’re homely.

The truth is, despite the menacing countenance, they tend to demonstrate docile behavior.

The wolf eels, which are neither wolf nor eel but members of the wolffish family, are recent arrivals from the Oregon Coast Aquarium. In no time at all, they’ve settled into the Alaska Rocky Reefs exhibit they share with six species of rockfish, sea stars and green surf anemones.

They’re so settled in, in fact, that you have to look closely for them, happily wedged between landscape stones like mortar.

“They’re low energy animals. They’re really couch potatoes,” Gladish says, not critically but with mom-style allegiance.