The carcass of a massive serpentine fish that’s inspired sea monster legends for centuries was recovered off the coast of Catalina Island last Sunday, and a UCSB research biologist will be studying its remains to learn more about the enigmatic creature.
During a casual snorkeling session in Toyon Bay, an instructor with the Catalina Island Marine Institute spotted the body of the 18-foot, 400-pound giant oarfish resting on the sea floor and — with the help of 14 other people — hauled it to shore. It didn’t take long for the significance of the discovery to sink in, as giant oarfish are as rare as they are remarkable, having been seen only a handful of times in recent years.
“It’s a fairly unusual event,” said Dr. Milton Love, who explained he should receive specimen samples any day now. A world-renowned fish expert with UCSB since 1993, Love said it’ll be his job to extract DNA from the samples and compare it against data collected from giant oarfish recovered in the Atlantic Ocean. Though the world’s longest bony fish live in oceans around the globe, they’ve only been grouped into a single species so far.
The working theory, according to Love, who cited oarfish expert Tyson Roberts, is that there may be more than one species out there. It’s been difficult to compile any kind of comprehensive data set on the animal, Love went on, since so few have been captured or recovered. When they are found, they’re typically dead or dying on the beach or in the shallows, and almost always a portion of their tail is missing. Love said Roberts has hypothesized that the giant oarfish intentionally releases a portion of its tail when threatened by a predator, the same defensive mechanism used by lizards to distract attackers.
Love relayed that researchers at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County said while they would like to preserve and keep the specimen in its entirety, they simply don’t have room for it. Scientists may instead bury the body, wait a few months for it to decompose, then exhume and mount the skeleton.
When giant oarfish have been observed alive and healthy — they live in deep waters, sometimes as far as 3,000 feet down — they’re usually swimming vertically, Love explained. Even stranger, their bodies stay relatively still, with their undulating dorsal fins doing most of the movement work. The first certified footage of a giant oarfish was taken in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico and can be found here.
The largest recorded oarfish clocked in at 36 feet long, and there have been unconfirmed reports of specimens reaching more than 50 feet in length. Lacking teeth, they feed mostly on krill and small fish or squid.