Real Serpent Of The Sea

Published: Spring 2014

18-foot oarfish found off Catalina Island ‘discovery of a lifetime’

Photo of an 18-ft long oarfish
An 18-foot oarfish was found floating off Catalina Island. (Courtesy Catalina Island Marine Institute)

Sea serpent? Maybe. Deep-water oddity? Clearly. Amazing discovery? Definitely. And for the folks at the Catalina Island Marine Institute, it was just plain cool.

An 18-foot-long oarfish, a deep-residing fish rarely seen dead or alive by humans, was found by one of the institute’s instructors in Toyon Bay off Catalina Island. A CIMI news release described it as a “discovery of a lifetime.”

Even for life-long marine enthusiasts and scientists, like CIMI Toyon Bay program director Jeff Chace, the discovery was a thrilling one.

“I had heard about a couple of them washing up, but even that’s pretty rare,” Chace said. “I’ve been in the ocean my whole life and I’ve never seen one. We’re all pretty excited around here.”

Jasmine Santana, 26, a children’s program instructor at CIMI, was snorkeling when she discovered it and tried to drag it ashore. Chace saw her struggling with the enormous silver animal in the shallows.

“I knew right away what it was,” Chace said. “Jasmine has been working here for about a year. It just shows you that you never know what you’re going to see. It’s what makes the ocean so amazing.”

Oarfish is the longest bony fish species, reaching up to around 56 feet in length. It can be found in all temperate to tropical waters. It is believed they can dive to depths of more than 3,000 feet, which leaves them largely unstudied.

The species’ size, lampriform shape and its habit of swimming near the surface when sick or dying, likely has made it the source of sea serpent tales for centuries.

It is the first known discovery of an oarfish in the Catalina Island area, although Kent Woods, CIMI’s marketing director, said infant oarfish have been caught in nets in the area on plankton tows.