By Kate,

Imagine going for a casual snorkel and coming face to face with a real life sea monster:

A wild oarfish appears
A wild oarfish appears

In such a scenario, instead of panicking, having an underwater heart attack or wetting her wetsuit, Jasmine Santana simply called for reinforcements (14 people!) to help drag the 18 foot (~5.5m) beast from an unusually shallow depth of 6m (0.001 leagues).

Oarfish, like this one, are speculated to live at about 600m depth (~0.107 leagues) and only come to shallow waters when particularly distressed, disoriented, dying or all of the above.  They achieved their name from the belief that they row themselves through the water with their pelvic fins. However, video footage suggests that they remain vertical in the water column with their heads upwards, and control their motion with their dorsal fin which runs all the way along their back. They actually have weak, flabby muscles, suggesting they may not be very strong swimmers at all and can easily be caught in currents and beached. Although they look fearsome, oarfish are toothless and hang vertically in the water column so that they can catch their favourite sea snack, zooplanktons, as gravity sinks them into their toothless mouth. If you were to handle one – like the people in Figure 2 below, you would find that they are scaleless and the skin is covered with silvery guanine (which the Oxford dictionary defines as an amorphous substance obtained abundantly from guano – the excrement of seabirds)!! There are accounts from New Zealand (on Wikipedia) that it gives off electric shocks when touched!

The terrifying monster of the deep with its captors
The terrifying monster of the deep with its captors

Lucky for scientists the carcass was found at the Wrigley Marine Institute on Catalina Island, so they were able to quickly get the body on ice and call up lots of specialists around the world to get analytical! Tissue samples have been distributed across a number of labs around the world. There are big plans for the oarfish, since not much is known about it. The eyes, gills, heart and liver will be studied to give more clues about its life processes and habitat, DNA sequencing will be performed for evolutionarily insight, the otolith (ear bone) can be dated, and the rest of skeleton will be hung at the Wrigley Institute for education of the masses – something for everyone! While this is very exciting, Dr Milton Love from UC Santa Barbara comments that “you wouldn’t know much about deer based on road kill”. While this is a great opportunity to examine these deep sea creatures it is quite different from observing them in their natural habitat (like Figure 3) and dedicating studies to understanding the oceans vast and exciting range of biological spectacles at depth.

Artists impression of an oarfish in its natural deep sea habitat (image by two-cue at deviantart)
Artists impression of an oarfish in its natural deep sea habitat (image by two-cue at deviantart)

Just days after a second oarfish washed up in San Diego! The two appearances of these fish have received a lot of attention in the news and is getting people interested in, and excited about the oceans and science, to which I say – you go oarfish, way to put your bodies on the line.

Science is rad!
Science is rad!