Mysterious ‘Sea Serpent’ Oarfish Resurfaces

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In another instance of a rare and poorly understood phenomenon, several beachgoers pulled a deceased oarfish from the sea in Carmen, Agusan Del Norte, Philippines on Wednesday, after fisherman had caught one off the same coast just days before.

Giant oarfish (Regalecus glesne) were first sighted in 1772 and crop up occasionally in temperate and tropical shallows around the world, usually two or three within a short period of time. Although very little is known about why this happens, some scientists have suggested that the deep-dwelling species—which usually makes its home in the mesopelagic zone 200 to 1,000 meters below the surface—is sometimes pushed ashore by strong currents and buffeting winds.

Although a vast majority of beachside oarfish sightings end with the fish’s death, it’s unclear whether they’re obeying some biological imperative to seek the surface when dying, or whether the strange circumstances themselves are the cause of death.

At over 30 feet the world’s longest bony fish, oarfish have all the makings of great drama: their superlative size, surprising beauty, and connection to myth continue to shuffle this creature into the limelight, only for it to swim away again.

Ironically for an animal about which so little is known, it goes by an abundance of names. In Palau, it’s called the rooster fish for the spiny red fins bristling from its head; the Japanese know it as the “Messenger from the Sea God’s Palace” and a herald of earthquakes. The elongated fish, though not a reptile, is thought to be the inspiration for legends of sea serpents found around the world.

Because oarfish normally live at a depth which humans still struggle to explore, very little research has been done on them. Specimens are few and far between—in addition to the sightings’ rarity, fishermen who haul up oarfish as unwanted bycatch usually throw them back, unable to sell the “flabby, gooey” meat at market. And when specimens are collected, there’s usually little information gleaned: dead specimens yield scant information in comparison to observing live animals in their natural habitat.

A 2011 video captured by a research ROV in the Gulf of Mexico provides a fascinating glimpse at this habitat. While collecting data about the environmental effects of a deep-sea oil rig, Mark Benfield of the GulfSERPENT Project came across this silver fish undulating like a submerged comet through the view screen.

“The deep sea is home to so many organisms we seldom see, and the more chances we get to get out there with ROVs, the more we will learn,” Benfield told National Geographic in 2013. (See amazing undersea pictures of one of the last unexplored places on earth.)

The intrigue remains. Is there any correlation, as myth and anecdotal evidence would suggest, between the appearance of oarfish in shallow waters and the earthquakes that seem to follow? Will studying the oarfish reveal more about the deep oceans, part of our own planet and yet as distant and unknown as the reaches of space just barely out of our grasp?

It seems we’ll have to wait for the next oarfish to ripple into view.

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