A morning swim in a Western Bay of Plenty waterfall didn't go to plan for one Pāpāmoa woman when she felt razor-like teeth sink into her leg. Now she is warning others of the danger.
Jackie Phillips was swimming with friends early on Saturday morning, January 16, at Raparapahoe Falls, near Te Puke.
She decided to swim out towards the waterfall but before she made it she felt a sharp biting sensation in her leg. She believes an eel was responsible for the bite.
"I quickly swam away, it was quite sore like razor blades going into my leg, but a metre and a half later I got another bite.
"Whether I got attacked by one or two eels I don't really know, but after the second bite, I was sort of losing my breath because I was swimming so fast to get out of the water."
Once out, the wounds on her lower left leg would not stop bleeding - it was then she could see the multiple razor-like cuts.
With no first aid kit handy, she decided to keep her leg in the cold water which helped with the bleeding and the pain.
"There were bruises already around the bites when I took my leg out of the water."
Eventually, Phillips made it back up the path and to the hospital to receive a tetanus shot.
For the rest of the day and through to Sunday her leg was throbbing. Phillips has kept it elevated in hopes the swelling and bruising will soon go down.
The experience has not put her off from going back in the water though as she understands it is the eels' home at the end of the day.
Swimming in the morning, in the cooler water, and being the first one in the deep pool could have also contributed to being bitten, Phillips believed.
"I wasn't expecting to be attacked by an eel or eels, but I will go back. Just later in the day and with a group."
Department of Conservation freshwater science adviser Dave West said there were probably two main reasons Phillips was bitten.
"One - the eel mistook the swimmer for food as eels eat most animals in freshwater.
"Or two - the eel was protecting their patch of the river as they seek out and defend best habitats such as a deeper pool."
West believed interactions such as this with eels were likely when they were hungrier and packed into less water - a result of low water levels during summer.
"Thankfully eels have very small teeth so while painful the bites are seldom deep."
NIWA freshwater fisheries scientist Don Jellyman said while eel bites were not frequent they did happen and especially in discoloured water where an eel was investigating what had "invaded its territory".
"They have a strong grip and can leave a bruise and abrasion but don't have cutting teeth so won't take out a chunk of flesh.
"Eel bites are usually from large longfins as they are omnivorous and eat almost anything."
However, the "shy and retiring" fish usually would only bite if agitated by something like blood in the water or distressed swimming of fish, Jellyman said.
"I have handled hundreds of large eels and only been bitten twice - both times my own fault when eels were distressed."
If eels do approach a swimmer, Jellyman suggested a "sharp knock on the snout" to deter them.
A Northland boy had a similar encounter with an eel two years ago after he had been playing in a small farm stream.
The 5-year-old boy and his friend were "having a race" with their dinosaur toys in the knee-high stream when one dinosaur went into the deeper part and he headed over to get it.
Next thing, he was screaming "something's biting me" and while running out of the water his dad saw the eel latched on to his leg, before it let go and darted back into the water.