A marine biologist came across an 18-foot-long oarfish Sunday, while snorkeling with colleagues in Toyon Bay, about 22 miles off the Port of Los Angeles.
Catalina Island Marine Institute (CIMI) marine science instructor Jasmine Santana noticed a snake-like object shimmering in the water, with eyes the size of silver dollars. “Her first reaction was to approach with caution, until she realized that it was dead,” according to Mark Waddington, senior captain of the Tole Mour, CIMI’s sail training ship.
Oarfishes are huge, greatly elongated, deep-water pelagic lampriform fishes, and belong to the small family Regalecidae. They can grow up to 56 feet long, making them the largest of all bony fishes. They dive deeper than 3,000 feet, and are rarely observed near the surface. “We’ve never seen a fish this big. The last oarfish we saw was three feet long,” Waddington said.
CIMI calls the new find a “discovery of a lifetime,” as they are rarely studied. The fish was found almost completely intact, and seems to have died from natural causes. “It took 15 or 20 of us to pick it up,” said Jeff Chace, a program director at CIMI. “It’s one of these rare weird things you see in Southern California.”
CIMI is considering what to do with the scaly oarfish carcass. The organization has been in touch with a “fish guru” at UC Santa Barbara and with the Museum of Natural History in L.A. “We can’t even really fit it into our freezer,” Chace said.
CIMI may just bury the fish, let it decompose, and then dig up the huge skeleton, to put it on display.
Interestingly, the occasional beachings of oarfish after storms, along with their habit of bobbing at the surface when sick or dying, make the creature a probable source of many sea serpent accounts. Though, the oarfish doesn’t eat humans, and instead feeds primarily on zooplankton, and selectively filters tiny euphausiids (krill), shrimp and other crustaceans from the water. Large open-ocean carnivores are all likely predators of the oarfish.
Image via CIMI.