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'Mystery of Eels' Will Wriggle its Way into Your Heart
April 17, 2013  | By Eric Gould  | 5 comments

A raise of hands, please: Out of a giant pile of review DVDs, how many of you would grab for the one-hour film on eels?

My thoughts exactly. The wet, slimy eel — a fish that resembles a snake — ranks right up there with insects, snakes and worms as a creature that gets the skin crawling.

But the next installment of Nature, called The Mystery of Eels, may change your mind about the heroic, often insulted species. It premieres Wednesday, April 17, 8 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

Hosted and narrated by artist and writer James Prosek, The Mystery of Eels is a pan-global diary of his search for the story of the eel, in all of its murky origins and arduous journeys. Prosek grew up in Connecticut and starts there, showing us the vast squirming populations of eels that inhabit New England's rivers.

Eels? In Connecticut?

Turns out the species, which can swim backward as well as it swims forward, is migratory. It hatches somewhere in the vast salt water oceans, and the eel larvae makes its way across hundreds and thousands of miles to the mouths of rivers where they undergo a metamorphosis. The eels mature and live in fresh water before returning to the sea to spawn before dying.

Posek next travels to Japan to learn about the fish that in that part of the world is a delicacy, and a multibillion dollar business.

"Scientifically, eels are totally unknown," says ocean scientist Dr. Katsumi Tsukamoto. "This is just my speculation, but they aggregate in a thousand or ten thousand and make eel balls, in the ocean under the sea surface about two hundred meters deep. Then they spontaneously spawn. Sperm and eggs in the dark ocean."

OK, so it's not a PG-13 image, but it's definitely something only nature in all its infinite, bizarre majesty could conjour. Since no one has ever witnessed this behavior, Prosek, a visual artist, produces a large graphic design of Tsukamoto's vision in his studio.

Next Prosek takes us to New Zealand, where the largest eel species, the Longfin, resides. The Longfin grows to be 4- to 5-feet long, and can live to be 80 years or more, before returning to the ocean. Despite its longevity, the species is threatened because New Zealand rivers are dotted with hydroelectric dams; the eels get caught in the turbines and are chopped to pieces.

In New Zealand, Prosek meets an old fisherman who once made his living off the eels, and who is now dedicated to a trap-and-release program that transports the eels around the power plants so they can safely get to the sea. It's a poignant moment when he says that, after years of hunting them down, he's just trying to give something back.

Prosek also finds older Mâori natives who are working to protect the species. The eel is not just an essential part of the Mâori diet, it's also revered by the native people. They tell of the eel's sacred status within their culture, explaining how the eels, who can writhe over land for short distances if necessary, are a symbol of the prehistoric power of nature and the cycle of all things.

Prosek, who is not a professional broadcaster, does not have a voice that is well suited to narration, and that's sometimes a distraction. Nevertheless, he spins a compelling tale. As a boy Prosek was repulsed by the fish when they got caught up on his fishing hook. He now sees the eels as representing "a thread that ties both oceans and rivers together … they made me feel that the world was held together by one interconnected system of beauty magic and mystery."

By the end of The Mystery of Eels, we feel the same. Surviving across millennia, and journeying thousands of miles to continue their kind, they're slimy dwellers of the dark no more.

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The eels mature and live in fresh water before returning to the sea to spawn before dying.
Jul 18, 2023   |  Reply
Thank for this article.
Mar 23, 2023   |  Reply
#JamesProsek shines as a sad, detached, whiney 3rd grader (with a Yale degree) forced to read from a script for 53 painful minutes. Undaunted by the possibly of low book sales, hear James state several times "I wanted to know more" so that you will watch this and possibly go out of your way to help supplement his income (someone's gotta pay for all that finger paint and Yale tuition!). Should you actually wish to enjoy this documentary: 1) put on subtitles 2) mute it 3) put on your favorite relaxing nature music/sounds.
Oct 20, 2014   |  Reply
I didn't mind the narration, and I found the program fascinating. One of the highlights of a trip I took to Tahiti was seeing the giant, blue-eyed eels. Loved it.
Apr 21, 2013   |  Reply
I'm afraid you are being somewhat generous in your assessment of Prosek's narration skills here. I personally found it be far worse than a distraction - in fact if basically ruined the program for me. His dull, lifeless, (sometimes) halting, always monotone narration coupled with the lack of focus in the worst possible way.
Apr 18, 2013   |  Reply
Grant - Perhaps... PBS/Nature obviously made an error by not doing a new narration for the documentary (which maybe, came to them after production was finished). But it eely was an amazing journey. –EG
Apr 18, 2013
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