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The oarfish: "sea serpent" remains mystery of science.

Sometime after nightfall on September 24, 1963, an 18-foot-long sea creature washed ashore near Malibu, California. Around midnight, Malibu resident Carole Richards took her poodle for a walk along the beach, happened upon the creature's huge body, and screamed in terror. Phyllis Huggins, a neighbor, heard her cry, and within minutes lights flashed on in houses throughout Malibu as word spread that a "sea serpent" lay dead just outside.

According to a police report of the incident, a passerby named North Young bravely dragged the monster off the beach and laid it across the top of his car, intending to take it to local authorities. Young had driven less than a mile from the beach when two police deputies spotted his vehicle, did a double-take, turned their squad car around, and directed its headlights at "a gigantic creature draped across a car roof." The officers quickly decided they'd better "call in the experts on this one."

"And that's how I came to be at the scene," remembers Boyd Walker, now emeritus professor of zoology at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Vlad Walters, another zoologist at the university, and I jumped into a truck, roared out to Malibu, and brought the dead 'sea serpent' back to the lab for analysis. Far from being a fearsome monster of the deeps, however, it turned out to be one of the rarest and most beautiful fish in the sea--an oarfish, Regalecus glesne." The oarfish specimen is now on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. According to fish curator Robert Lavenberg, it's an almost complete animal--a rare find--except for a meter or so of its tail, which was probably bitten off by sharks.

With its eerie, sinuous silhouette, it's little wonder that the oarfish has long been mistaken for a sea serpent. Indeed, those who study the fish say that a person who reports seeing a creature with all the characteristics of an oarfish might well be suspected of having hallucinations. It is now thought that the sea-monster tales of Aristotle, Pliny, and other classical observers were likely accounts of oarfish sightings. "Even the famous Sea Serpent, measuring fifty-six feet in length, cast up on the shore of Orkney in 1808 was almost certainly this fish," maintains J.R. Norman of the British Museum of Natural History in A History of Fishes.

Called "king of the palace under the sea" by Japanese fishermen, the oarfish is the longest teleost (that is, bony, rather than cartilaginous, fish) in the ocean. A member of the family Regalecidae, it may reach lengths of more than 17 meters and weigh up to 300 kilograms. The serpentine fish is found in warm, temperate waters worldwide, at depths of from 20 to 200 meters. Its life span is unknown.

An oarfish sports a long, red dorsal fin that rises to a manelike crest atop its head. A "sea monster with fiery red hair," glimpsed undulating through the deep waters of California's Monterey Bay, was reported in a 1925 edition of the Monterey Peninsula Herald. This "freak of Father Neptune's" flaming hair was thought to be seaweed that the monster became entangled in while surfacing from the bay's depths. The oarfish also has brilliant red pelvic rays that rotate like the oars of a rowboat when it swims--hence its common name. Scientists think the appendages may be used in taste perception, though, not as swimming aids, according to ichthyologist John Olney at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point. Olney is one of the few marine biologists who currently study oarfish and their evolutionary history.

Oarfish and their relatives--which have common names as fanciful as unicornfish, inkfish, and tube-eyes--make up the order Lampridiformes. The oarfish's closest relative, known as the streamerfish, or Agrostichthys, is not as large and spectacular, but is also very secretive: less than five specimens have ever been found. All lampridiforms have evolved a novel mechanism for capturing their prey (usually small invertebrates and fish): The animals move their upper jaws far forward when feeding, making their open mouths some 40-times larger than their closed mouths.

Oarfish begin their lives as brightly colored (amber, pink, or red) floating, planktonic eggs some 2 to 4 millimeters in diameter. These eggs incubate for up to three weeks at the sea surface, so their vivid colors may be a specialization to protect developing embryos from harmful solar rays. Ichthyologists understand little more about the oarfish's habits now than they did in 1771, when the first specimen was described in the scientific literature by Morton Brunnich, a Danish naturalist. He found the fish washed up on a beach near a coastal farm in Norway. Fewer than 25 sightings of the creature have been recorded since then, most of them similar to the Malibu stranding. What little we know about the oarfish results from study of these bodies and research on the fish's larvae, which have been found in the Mediterranean Sea, East Pacific Ocean, and West and South Atlantic Ocean. The oarfish's scarcity makes it almost a marine illusion.

A few encounters with this rare creature have occurred at sea, but despite attempts to lure it close enough to a ship to be caught, none has succeeded. A 1906 encounter may be the closest scientists have come to capturing a live adult Regalecus. Marine biologist F. Wood Jones published an account of the sighting in The Fishes of the Indo-Australian Archipelago. On October 28, some 30 miles south of the Island of Sumbawa, a "long and very beautiful fish came to the surface at the ship's bow. Baited rigs were thrown to it, but it took no notice of them." Although the vessel's crew wasn't able to entice the oarfish onto a hook, Jones says that in the water, the fish was a wonderful sight: "With its vivid red crest and dorsal fin, scarlet streamers on its sides, and blue of its head and intense shine of silver on its body, it was probably the most beautiful creature I've ever seen."

Naturalist C.F. Holder is one of the few other scientists to have seen an adult oarfish alive. In 1925, Holder chanced upon a small oarfish swimming in shallow waters along the beach of Avalon Bay on Santa Catalina Island, off southern California. "The opportunity to observe this radiant creature was one I'll never forget," he wrote in Fishes. "The fish was a fragile and delicate creature, a very ghost of a fish, which swam along just beyond where the water gently lapped the sands. It was a striking creature, showing naught but a vivid red mass of seeming plumes and a silver sheen where it undulated through the water."

Oarfish from more recent "sea serpent encounters" along the coast of California--five, in fact--can be found in the fish collection of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, according to Richard Rosenblatt, curator of fishes. The most recent specimen (1986) died when it became trapped in a fisherman's driftnet near the San Juan seamount in the Eastern Pacific; a warning, perhaps, of more such "catches" to come.

"The oarfish has but blundered into the hands of man in the past," said the late Romeo Mansuetti, a biologist at the University of Maryland Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at Solomons Island. "As he plies the ocean in ever greater numbers, man's encounters with the oar fish may--or may not--increase. In any case, may it be remembered that the fish has no commercial value, nor any potential as a game fish." In spite of increasing exploration and exploitation of the oceans, John Olney believes that because of the oarfish's rarity, the secrets of its life may never be fully revealed. But if such a fish can even exist, there may be all sorts of creatures in the sea's depths that we know nothing about.

Cheryl Lyn Dybas specializes in writing about "underappreciated" creatures of the deep. Her articles on marine life have also appeared in National Wildlife, International Wildlife, Wildlife Conservation, and the National Science Foundation's Directions magazines.
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Author:Dybas, Cheryl Lyn
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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