Real Serpent of the Sea

Real Serpent of the Sea
An 18-foot oarfish was found floating off Catalina Island. (Courtesy Catalina Island Marine Institute)

18-foot oarfish found off Catalina Island 'discovery of a lifetime'

Sea serpent? Maybe. Deep-water oddity? Clearly. Amazing discovery? Definitely.

And for the folks at the Catalina Island Marine Institute, it was just plain cool.

An 18-foot-long oarfish, a deep-residing fish rarely seen dead or alive by humans, was found by one of the institute’s instructors in Toyon Bay off Catalina Island, located off the coast of southern California. A CIMI news release described it as a “discovery of a lifetime.”

Even for life-long marine enthusiasts and scientists, like CIMI Toyon Bay program director Jeff Chace, the discovery was a thrilling one.

“I had heard about a couple of them washing up, but even that’s pretty rare,” Chace said. “I’ve been in the ocean my whole life and I’ve never seen one. We’re all pretty excited around here.”

Jasmine Santana, 26, was taking advantage of her week’s only off day as a children’s program instructor at CIMI by snorkeling in Toyon Bay last Sunday. She saw a silver object the size and shape of a half dollar on the bay’s sandy bottom. Closer inspection proved it to be the oarfish carcass.

Santana had not brought a camera on her trip, so she decided to attempt to drag ashore the huge fish, which had only recently died and had its full body intact.

Chace had just returned from Santa Barbara Island with a crew of instructors on the tall ship “Tole Mour,” a school vessel, when he saw Santana in the water, struggling to drag an enormous silver animal into the shallows.

“I knew right away what it was,” Chace said. “Jasmine has been working here for about a year. It just shows you that you never know what you’re going to see. It’s what makes the ocean so amazing.”

Oarfish is the longest bony fish species, reaching up to around 56 feet in length. It can be found in all temperate to tropical waters. It is believed they can dive to depths of more than 3,000 feet, which leaves them largely unstudied. Little is known about their behavior or population.

The species’ size, lampriform shape and its habit of swimming near the surface when sick or dying, likely has made it the source of sea serpent tales for centuries.

It is the first known discovery of an oarfish in the Catalina Island area, although Kent Woods, CIMI’s marketing director, said infant oarfish have been caught in nets in the area on plankton tows.

“In my 32 years here, I have never seen anything like this,” said Mark Johnson, a CIMI employee.Chace said tissue samples from the fish have been sent to Dr. Milton Love, a renowned fish expert at the University of California at Santa Barbara. But CIMI still wants to preserve the discovery.

“We are working to see if we can get the skin off the animal, then take the skeleton and mount it,” he said. “Whether we can or not, we’ll have to see.”

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