The giant eel-like fish could have come straight from the pages of a science-fiction novel — an unfamiliar, translucent sea serpent so long and heavy that a dozen people are needed to move or hold it.
That fantasy became reality this week after a snorkeling biologist discovered an 18-foot oarfish in waters near the Catalina Island Marine Institute.
The fact that the obscure, deep-sea fish was already dead of apparent natural causes had no impact on the widespread interest in the find, which is why samples of the fish’s tissue were sent to UC Santa Barbara marine biologists.
Experts have been tasked with studying the oarfish’s DNA to try to better understand a creature that typically spends an entire lifetime out of sight.
Just a handful of people can say they’ve seen an oarfish alive, according to Milton Love, a research biologist with UCSB's Marine Science Institute.
“This is kind of the classic case where somebody is walking along the water — or, in this case, snorkeling — and they see this very, very large dying fish,” Love told Noozhawk. “What’s most significant is that it happened to park itself in a cove filled with marine biology-types.
“It combines all of those elements that people are attracted to. It’s big and it’s mysterious and weird-looking.”
Seeing a washed-up dead or dying oarfish is slightly more common than a living, breathing one, but again, has only happened a handful of times, he said.
Most oarfish spend their days hundreds or thousands of feet deep in the ocean, well below where scuba divers can safely explore.
Their elusiveness explains why so little is known about the long, silvery fish with bright scarlet fins.
Love said the oarfish’s size doesn’t help matters, either.
“The problem with oarfish is that it’s too big for displays,” he said. “Where can you find a jar 18 feet long, right? We don’t know how deep they go.”
Until 10 years ago, Love said, experts believed there was just one species of oarfish before discovering that two likely exist — one in the Pacific Ocean and the other in the Atlantic, differing in the number of vertebrae.
The latest find and subsequent DNA sampling could shed some light on the largely unstudied fish and its unknown relatives.
Love said experts have at least become familiar with the peculiar way in which oarfish swim based on limited first-hand accounts.
Oarfish hold their lengthy bodies stiff and swim by undulating, or rippling, down their dorsal fins, traveling in a less common vertical path that has surprised one or two of their human observers.
Experts also believe that oarfish can lose their tails in the same way lizards do as a self-defense mechanism, which might explain why all found oarfish are without tails, including the Catalina case.
“They are just a trippy animal,” Love said.