Beast Beast

10.23.13

Fishy Mystery: Are Beached Oarfish Trying to Tell Us Something?

A pair of giant, bony fish—one 18 feet long—have washed up on California beaches this week. Are they climate change victims? Prophets of doom? Scientist Kevin Bailey on what we know.

Two sea serpents washed ashore in southern California shores last week, startling local beachgoers, puzzling marine biologists—and giving rise to countless creepy conspiracy theories.

The first sighting of the oarfish was an 18-footer that surprised a diver off Catalina Island. She dragged the dead beast, estimated to weigh 400 pounds, out of the water with the help of friends on October 13. The second, logging in at 14 feet, washed up at Oceanside Harbor five days later.

Beaching of the oarfish is a very rare occurrence—the last time it happened was 2010—so two in one week is certainly an oddity. In fact, the creatures dwell so deep in the ocean that they’re rarely seen at all. (One eerie video which surfaced in June was something of a viral hit.)

So what’s behind these spooky events? We may never know.

According to Japanese mythology, the oarfish is a messenger from the dragon god of the sea. In concordance with the messenger theme, in the two years preceding the Tohoku earthquake in March 2011, an unusual number of oarfish stranded themselves on the coastal beaches of Japan. The Japan Times on March 6, 2010, reported that in folklore the fish comes to the beach as an omen of an earthquake. With that in mind, is “The Big One” about to hit southern California, splitting it off from the rest of the continent and tipping into the sea?

Of course, the Internet is abuzz with other possible reasons. The sea serpents’ demise coincides with reports of Fukushima radioactivity working its way across the ocean. Then there are reports that offshore oil wells in southern California have been surreptitiously engaged in fracking the sea bottom to extract more petroleum. Or how about powerful sonar blasts the U.S. Navy is using in the waters off southern California? Climate change, old age, disease? A broken ocean? Could the pair have had a lovers’ quarrel that went south?

The oarfish is the largest living bony fish, reaching up to 35 feet in length. Certainly the beast sighted on the surface by sailors gave rise to the lore of sea serpents. It has silvery blue skin and a red dorsal fin that runs the length of its body. There are several long fins extending from the top of its head like antennae, and they may have lures at the end. It positions itself vertically in the water with the head pointed upwards and swims up and down like an elevator from more than 1,000 feet deep to near surface by means of undulations of the dorsal fin.

Weird.

It has no teeth, which should relieve the angst of surfers who don’t need another sea beast to fret about.

Large black eyes sit on either side of the oarfish’s head, and the mouth is relatively small to feed on krill and jellyfish. It has no teeth, which should relieve the angst of surfers who don’t need another sea beast to fret about. There are anywhere from one to three species of oarfish in the world depending on who you talk to. According to Dr. Milton S. Love, a marine biologist at the University of California and author of Certainly More than You Want to Know about the Fishes of the Pacific Coast the oarfish found on the California beaches are Regalecus russelii, most likely the only species found in the Pacific Ocean.

So what really happened to the beached oarfish? There have been unusual sightings of other marine animals on the Pacific coast this summer. Apparently, southern California was invaded by the blue-footed booby. (Really.) A barracuda was caught by research scientists near Santa Cruz. Leatherback turtles, opah, and large numbers of ocean sunfish have been reported off Washington. However, ocean scientists report that we don’t seem to be experiencing an El Niño or La Niña, which might explain changes in the range distributions of marine animals. In fact, the eastern Pacific Ocean appears to be in an extended cool phase, which makes the occurrence of warm water species farther north harder to explain. So there doesn’t appear to be any direct link of the range anomalies or the strandings to climate. Fracking is an unlikely cause of the strandings, because according to Dr. Love, fracking has been going on for many years in the offshore oil wells.

In reality, since strandings of oarfish are rare, it will be difficult—or impossible—to determine the cause. By comparison, strandings of marine mammals such as whales, which are relatively common and have been thoroughly (and expensively studied), have yielded few answers. The beachings are often suspected to result from sonar energy used by the U.S. Navy, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will only issue a tentative statement to say that “under certain conditions…military sonar may play a role in marine mammal strandings,” following up with a more cautious, “However, there are many more unknowns than information regarding the certainty of these effects…”

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One problem with determining the cause of the oarfish strandings is that we have no healthy oarfish samples to compare with the dead ones. How do we recognize the parameters of an unhealthy oarfish? Antonella Preti of NOAA, who is dissecting the second beached oarfish, says the animal was a female in spawning condition, and had three or four scars from cookiecutter sharks. She says, “Maybe this girl was healthy and some accident happened to her. It’s not possible to determine the cause of death [yet] because there are many variables and [the] analyses are not completed.”

Love says that his own favorite theory is that the fish got caught in a current that carried them into shallow water where the waves and turbulence damaged them. But how do we know if the live animal or the already dead animal got beat up in the surf?

I, for one, am OK with a rare stranding or two. It reminds us that mysterious and wonderful creatures really do live in the sea and not just inside our digital devices. Animals in the sea die for natural reasons, as well as man-induced causes. It’s when the frequency of strandings increase so that they are no longer rare that makes me nervous. Just remember though, the next time you swim in the ocean and think you’ve rubbed against a piece of kelp, it could be a sea serpent. Really.