Scary sea creature mystifies fishermen and cruise ship snorkelers

by Susan Dearing

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After returning from a snorkeling tour, cruise ship visitors to Manzanillo were stunned and amazed by a strange, serpent-like beast that had apparently washed ashore.

Reporters from the daily newspapers, as well as other members of the news media were there to snap pictures, videos, and stare in wonder at the 20 ft. monstrosity  that beached itself in its death throes.

With an oversized head and huge, circular eyes, and a tapering, ribbony silver body--the creature--together with its impressive, pink dorsal fins that ran the entire length of its body, it was indeed one of the most unusual specimens the onlookers had ever seen. It had a small yet highly protrusible oblique mouth with no visible teeth. Its sides were covered with irregular bluish to blackish streaks, black dots, and squiggles.

Of the approximately 400 dorsal fin rays, the first few were elongated to varying degrees, forming a trailing crest embellished with reddish spots and flaps of skin at the ray tips.

It wasn't until I returned to the Dive Center that I was able to identify the fish, thanks to the internet. I typed in "weird ocean fish," and the first website to pop up had several photos of our mystery animal. Here is the web site for more pictures.

In studying this fascinating "sea monster," I learned that it was called an oarfish, a pelagic Lampriform (an order of ray-finned fish that includes about 50 living species of deep sea fishes), comprising the small family of Regalecidae. Found in all temperate to tropical oceans yet rarely seen, the oarfish family contains four species.

One of these, the King of Herrings (though it is not a herring), or giant oarfish, Regalecus glesne, is found in all the world's oceans at depths of between 1,000 and 6,000 ft. Its total length can reach 60 ft., and weigh up to 700 lbs. Our 20 ft. specimen weighed in at only 60 lbs., but it took 3 men to get it out of the water and lay it across 3 plastic picnic chairs.

The common name oarfish is presumably in reference to either their highly compressed and elongated bodies, or to the former (but now discredited) belief that the fish "row" themselves through the water with their pelvic fins. The family name Regalecidae is derived from the Latin word  regalis, meaning "royal". The occasional beachings of oarfish after storms, and their habit of lingering at the surface when sick or dying, make oarfish a probable source of many sea serpent stories. Sightings of sea serpents have been reported for hundreds of years, and continue to be claimed today. Cryptozoologist Bruce Champagne identified more than 1,200 purported sea serpent sightings. Could many of them be the oarfish?

From December 2009 through March 2010, unusual numbers of the slender oarfish were spotted off the coast of Mexico, but oarfish are rare. Distribution information is collated from records of oarfishes caught or washed ashore. Rare encounters with divers and accidental catches have supplied what little is known of oarfish behavior. Apparently solitary animals, oarfish feed primarily on zooplankton. Plankton are minute organisms drifting in oceans, seas, and bodies of fresh water. Large open-ocean carnivores are all likely predators of oarfish, and include the white-tipped shark.