Hawaii Biological Survey's


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8. Sea Cucumber / weli


Sea cucumbers [the Hawaiian name is weli or loli ] are bottom-dwelling marine creatures that are our "reef janitors". They are filter feeders and sift sand for the organic coating on the sand grains. They also have a defense mechanism that is quite unique and not something you would want to try at home. They essentially vomit their entire insides (organs and all!) to escape from predators. After avoiding a predator in that fashion, their insides regenerate in a few months.

Although they look quite different, these unusual creatures belong to the same family as starfish and sea urchins. Once common throughout the world's oceans, their number have recently been decimated by the voracious demands of the huge Asian market, who consider them a dining delicacy and a symbol of high esteem for a loved one. They have historically been collected for the scrumptious gourmet dish, beche-de-mer. One species (`unae) is collected and used in the Japanese dish, namako. Another species, loli-pua, is the favorite for eating in Hawai`i.

Sea cucumbers come in two basic varieties: (1) those with tube feet, which work on water pressure; and (2) those without tube feet. The common, large, dark-colored sea cucumbers generally have tube feet on the lower surface of the body that they use to glide over sand or pebbles. The sea cucumber pictured above (weli) belongs to the group without tube feet. They are jelly-like and have anchor-like small spicules or “spines” over the entire body, making them feel sticky. They are often mistaken for marine worms and are very common in some places in Kaneohe Bay. The species depicted here was originally described from Pearl Harbor.

   Photo © HBS