On a leisurely afternoon snorkel this past Sunday, Jasmine Santana fixed her surprised eyes on an 18-foot, 200-pound oarfish, a giant of the deep that scientists know very little about. After making sure it was dead, Santana went ashore for a pair of gloves. She then relocated the fish, grabbed it by the tail and headed slowly back toward California’s Santa Catalina Island. About 15 colleagues returning from a boat trip ran up to help, and they were able to lift it onto land. Samples from this oarfish, one of the largest to wash up in recent decades, have been sent to ichthyologists for further analysis. Meanwhile, Santana’s employer, the nonprofit Catalina Island Marine Institute, plans on displaying the specimen’s skeleton as part of its educational programming.
Oarfish are among the most peculiar-looking animals in the sea, with eel-shaped bodies that can reach lengths of at least 26 feet. “There are stories from way back when that they got up to 50 feet,” said Richard Feeney, collection manager of fishes at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. “But those might just be legends.” Either way, no bony fish is longer, though some cartilaginous species such as whale sharks likely surpass them. The oarfish’s silvery coloration with iridescent blue splotches, its red dorsal fin running the length of its back and its habit of hovering vertically in the water also render it unusual. “It’s such a beautiful fish, but it’s so alien like,” Feeney said. “I guess that’s why it’s interesting to people.”
A good deal about the oarfish’s behavior, life cycle and population size remains a mystery. They are believed to live far out at sea in depths of up to 3,000 feet, where they feed on shrimp and other small prey. Some experts speculate that they are capable of releasing their tails when attacked, much like lizards. Sightings are rare, but because oarfish occasionally approach the coast when dead or dying, they are not unheard of. In 1808, for example, a large, serpent-like creature washed ashore in Scotland, and in 1860 Harper’s Weekly published a drawing of a “great sea-serpent” —likely an oarfish—found in Bermuda. “This is where they think the stories about sea serpents originated,” Feeney explained.
More recent oarfish encounters include a 14-footer from Santa Catalina Island that’s now on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; a 23-footer that Navy SEALs came across off the coast of Coronado, California; a 12-footer that washed up in Malibu, California; another 12-footer found floating near a Swedish shoreline; and an 18-footer that beached itself in Baja, Mexico. A few years ago, scientists using remotely operated vehicles in the Gulf of Mexico were even able to film oarfish in their natural habitat for arguably the first time.
The latest addition to the legend of the oarfish came on Sunday, when Jasmine Santana, an instructor at the Catalina Island Marine Institute, spent part of her day off snorkeling in Santa Catalina Island’s Toyon Bay. A few hundred feet offshore, she came across a huge creature lying dead on the bottom. “She sort of bear hugged it and dragged it down to the surf line,” where about 15 colleagues then helped her haul it up onto land, said Jeff Chace, program director of the institute, which teaches marine science to grade-school students. “It’s awesome that her desire to share it with everyone else overtook her fear. Now we call her the oarfish expert by default.”
Chace added that, as a marine biology fan, he’s dreamed of things like this his whole life. Though the fish has since been chopped up into three-foot sections and frozen, Chace hopes to eventually put the skeleton back together again for display purposes. “We’re trying to make science real and tangible,” he said. By harvesting all of the organs—the eyeball alone is the size of a fist—and sending samples to ichthyologists at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and elsewhere, Chace is also helping to fill in the many gaps in oarfish knowledge. DNA analysis, for instance, could potentially clarify how many oarfish species exist in the world. “Your chances of running across this thing are so slim, so when one’s available to be studied people jump on it,” Chace said. “There’s a mystique about it that draws people in.”