The Brantevik Eel

The Brantevik eel was a European silver eel (Anguilla anguilla) which reportedly lived for at least 155 years, from sometime before 1859 to 2014 in the village of Brantevik in Sweden. The eel was caught by an eight-year-old boy named Samuel Nilsson and thrown into a well at his family’s farm. This was supposedly common practice in the 1800s, as small towns like Brantevik would not be connected to the main national water supply until the middle of the twentieth century. With wells being primary sources of water, eels would often be introduced to the well as they would keep the water clean by eating small creatures (ranging from insects to rodents) which fell into the well.

The waterfront of the village of Brantevik in southern Sweden.

Trapped in the well and unable to carry out its natural life cycle by migrating to the Sargasso Sea to spawn, the eel lived for decades. As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, the longevity of the eel began to attract attention and it soon became locally, and then nationally famous. The renowned Swedish writer Fritiof Nilsson Piraten mentioned the eel in his highly successful Tom Sawyer-like adventure book Bombi Bitt och jag (Bombi Bitt and I) which was published in 1932. Due to its growing fame, the eel was eventually named Åle, and people began to travel from all over Sweden to see it.

When the farm on which the well was sited was sold in 1962, it was done so on the understanding that Åle was a resident and could not be moved, something which the farm’s new owners, the Kjellman family, readily agreed to. The eel’s fame continued into the twenty-first century, but as time passed, and the story of little Samuel Nilsson throwing the eel down the well faded into the past, questions started to be asked about the true age of Åle. Could it really be true that a European eel, which has an average lifespan of ten to twenty years and a reported maximum of twenty-three, could live to such an age? In 2009 a Swedish nature television programme Mitt i nature set out to establish Åle’s true age.

The Swedish television crew looking for Åle in the well.
The Swedish television crew looking for Åle in the well.

They visited the farm and, in front of the rolling cameras, searched the well but were unable to locate Åle. Even when the well was drained of water the eel could not be seen. After much dramatic searching Åle was finally found hiding under a stone and was removed from the well. Åle was small, at around 53cm (21 inches) long and very thin, with eyes which were much larger than those of a normal silver eel, possibly as a result of living in darkness for much of the time, as the well was usually covered over by a concrete block. Appearing relatively healthy, Åle was examined, measured and then returned to his home. While the television programme had not proved the eel was 150 years old, judging by its appearance it was certainly possible that Åle was such an age.

In 2014, at the supposed age of 155, Åle was found dead by the farm’s owners. His death was broadcast around the world with the BBC, Sunday Times and America’s NBC News among the many news outlets which reported the news with varying levels of seriousness. The body of the eel was stored in a freezer and was then transported to the Swedish University of Agricultural Science’s Institute of Freshwater Research for analysis. But the scientists of the institute could not establish the age of Åle. Doing so required examination of the otoliths (calcium-based stones in the ears of fish) but the otoliths of Åle were not present in the frozen remains. Even when the well was once again drained and searched they could not be found, meaning that the true age of Åle will remain a mystery.

Åle after being removed from the well.
Åle after being removed from the well.

In the years that have passed the question has often been posed: could Åle have actually been 155 years old when he died? Could this eel really have been alive since 1859? To put it into perspective this was two years before the American Civil War began, the same year that the J. S. Mill published On Liberty and the year that the very first digging of the Suez Canal began by hand with picks and shovels. One explanation is that the natural lifespan of eels is connected to their life cycle. They hatch from eggs in the Sargasso Sea in the western North Atlantic. They then swim to Europe where they live in freshwater rivers before returning to the sea where they live for a period which can range from a few months to several years. Eventually, they migrate back to the Sargasso Sea where they spawn and then die. It is perfectly possible that a silver eel, trapped in such a way that prevents it from fulfilling this life cycle, can continue to live for an extended period of time. William O’Connor, an Irish marine biologist and eel expert, discussed Åle’s lifespan with the website He said that while the typical lifespan of this species is around twenty years, “it is known that they can live longer than this” but 155 years was “quite a stretch” and he was a “little bit sceptical that this eel was really this old.” However, there was evidence that an eel held in similar conditions to Åle in a well in Denmark lived to fifty-five, and another eel in an aquarium in Sweden reached eighty-five years old. Other eel species can also have very long lifespans, with the New Zealand longfin eel (Anguilla dieffenbachii) having an average lifespan of sixty years, and possibly reaching 100 years in the wild. All of this means that while Åle age of 155 is disputed and unproven, it is possible that he lived that long.

There is another eel which may, in time, challenge Åle’s age record. Swedish website reported that another unnamed eel lived with Åle in the well on the Kjellman’s farm. This eel is still [at the time of writing in 2023] alive and well and was caught in the 1910s, making it over 110 years old. Time will tell if it eventually outlives Åle.


  1. Much mirth as Sweden ‘mourns’ its oldest eel, BBC News, 9 August 2014
  2. World’s oldest eel dies in Swedish well,, 8 August 2014
  3. RIP, World’s Oldest Eel, Smithsonian Magazine, 11 August 2014
  4. Did Ale the Eel Live to Age 155? Scientists Say It’s Possible, NBC, 12 August 2014
  5. Something’s Fishy: Did ‘Oldest Eel’ Really Live 155 Years?,, 13 August 2014
  6. Fort, T. (2020), The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World, Ecco Publishing.