On Friday, Oct. 18, a second oarfish floated ashore, this time in Oceanside. An oarfish, part of the mythology of sea serpents, is a deep water fish of snakelike or serpent appearance. This is the second dead oarfish found in less than a week. The first one was found in Avalon, part of the Catalina Islands off the Southern California shore. That one was 18 feet while the most recent measured just under 14 feet.
These snakelike fish are solitary animals and have rarely been sighted even by deep sea divers looking for them. In July 2008, scientists captured footage of the rare fish swimming in its natural habitat in the Gulf of Mexico. It is the first ever confirmed sighting of an oarfish at depth. Normally oarfish live at depths up to 3,000 feet deep and eat plankton, small shrimp and other small crustaceans they strain from the water.
The Oceanside oarfish washed onto the southern side of the Oceanside Harbor jetty. This one was spotted by a snorkeler who wrestled the heavy, lifeless fish to shore.
It was the lesson of a lifetime for a of group third graders on a beach trip.
"I was like, 'Wow, that's an oar fish' … 'cause we're studying in class and stuff,'" said Destiny Crite. "I was amazed."
"I was thinking I have no idea what that is and like it looks like a snake but it kind of looks like a giant eel," said Alexandria Boyle.
It was an unusual find even for the scientist who came to collect it.
"It's so rare to find in Southern California, especially in surface water," said Suzanne Kohin, who is with the National Marine Fisheries Service. "They thought it was a very rare event the first time, so these two events that we heard of in the last few weeks are the only ones I've ever heard of."
An instructor with the Catalina Island Marine Institute found the first oarfish while snorkeling in the waters of Toyon Bay. She was teaching a class and along with her students she dragged it onto the beach. There was no immediate known cause of death. Both fish were cut up and taken to labs for research and investigation.
Marine experts say it’s exciting to have two of these rare creatures appear in Southern California.
"I think in the whole history only a handful of them have washed up," said Chris Okamoto, a marine biologist at Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. "We don't know a lot about the oarfish. We do know that they live in deep water. They feed on things like zoo plankton, which are small animals, and shrimp, things of that nature. We feel fortunate that they've washed up because now we get a little bit of a chance to study them so maybe we'll understand them a little bit more."
Experts do not yet know why the oarfish have suddenly washed up in the shallower waters of Southern California. Scientists plan to study the carcasses. Scripps Research Institute employees called it the discovery of a lifetime, noting sightings are rare because oarfish dive more than 3,000 feet deep. The fish was believed to have died of natural causes, but tissue samples were taken to be studied.
Biologists say the giant oarfish is the longest bony fish species, growing as long as 56 feet. They are also thought to be responsible for sea serpent sightings throughout history.
The dead oarfish have both amateur and professional researchers speculating as to the cause. Could it have been due to the radiation in the waters after the problems in Japan? Since they eat similar food as both the giant dolphin pods seen earlier in the year off the Southern California coast, could food source be driving these fish to shallower waters or is the problem due to earthquakes in the Pacific Rim or global warming? These will be answers the researchers will investigate and will be reported when more information is available.
Adding to the mystery is the discovery on October 15 of another rare creature stranded on a Southern California beach: a beaked whale at Venice Beach. Beaked whales are few in number, deep sea dwellers, can dive more than 6,000 feet and therefore difficult to study. The 14-foot specimen is being studied at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Researchers believe the whale is either from sub-Arctic waters to the north, or warmer waters to the south.