Science column: Monstrous discovery
Published: Monday, October 21, 2013
Updated: Monday, October 21, 2013 22:10
The Catalina Island Marine Institute in California, had a day off last weekend and decided to spend it snorkeling in local Toyon Bay, Calif. Her day off, however, quickly turned into a day she would never forget. Santana stumbled across the body of an 18-foot-long oarfish—a type of fish rarely seen in the shallows and wasn’t even captured on film until 2001.
Santana’s discovery is an amazing opportunity for scientists to start learning more about this elusive and, frankly, creepy-looking fish. Oarfish are likely one of the inspirations behind the ‘sea monster’ legends that have spawned from oceans all over the world, and learning more about them is the surest way to open the public’s eyes to reality.
The oarfish was dead when she found it, but dead or alive, oarfish are a rare find close to the surface. They can dive up to 3,000 feet deep, and feed largely on plankton, as well as small crustaceans and squid. They swim vertically in the water column when feeding. This strategy is thought to let the oarfish see its prey, which are silhouetted against the light coming from the surface, and also remain hidden from them (if they looked down, they wouldn’t see the giant fish hunting them, only its small vertical profile). Very little else is known about the oarfish. It has only been captured alive a few select times and has only been filmed in the wild once. However, throughout history, dead and injured oarfish have been found floating at the surface. Their elongated shape and large dorsal (top) fin have led to sightings of an oarfish to be reported as those of a sea serpent.
Santana’s oarfish was 18 feet in length, but it was a small fry in the oarfish community. While the last oarfish the Catalina Island Marine Institute found was reported to be only about nine feet long, oarfish can grow up to larger than 50 feet. It took Santana and 15 of her coworkers to haul the 300-pound fish to shore, but with such a rare find it was definitely worth it.
CIMI hasn’t released any more information at this time, but the organization is planning to have a fish biologist fly in to California to do an autopsy on the fish, which died of natural causes, to learn more about its diet, lifestyle and anatomy. After it’s been dissected, the scientists at CIMI are going to bury the body in the nearby beach. Small crustaceans and other little critters will eat the meat and flesh but leave the bones picked clean. After enough time, the scientists are going to dig up the skeleton and display it with their other skeletons and fossils of creatures of the deep. This oarfish will make an amazing addition to their collection and has much to teach us about these elusive monsters of the deep.