Published October 28, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott
Two weeks ago, several readers emailed me news stories about a snorkeler finding a dead, 18-foot-long oarfish near Santa Catalina Island, Calif. The woman and 15 helpers dragged the enormous fish to the island’s beach for others to see and researchers to study.
Four days later, another oarfish appeared in the news. This one, 14 feet long and also dead, washed up on an Oceanside, Calif., beach about 20 miles from Santa Catalina.
My first reaction was not, “What’s happening to oarfish?” but rather, “What is an oarfish?” But when I Googled the name, I got a surprise: one of my own columns. I wrote about oarfish in 2012.
The reason I forgot was because the subject of that column wasn’t oarfish. It was a review of a fish book I discovered, “Certainly More Than You Wanted to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast: A Postmodern Experience.” The text has since become my favorite reference book because author Milton Love, professor and research biologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, included humor, a nearly unheard of feature in science texts.
While I was paging through the book in 2012, the photo of an oarfish floating vertically in the water column caught my eye, as did Love’s comment about it, which made me smile: “Dude, if your fish is ribbony and has really long posterior dorsal fin rays and really, really long pelvic fin rays, and those rays are bright red, it’s, like, an oarfish.”
This time I read further.
Oarfish live in open water throughout the world’s oceans, swimming from the surface to 5,000 feet. The fish often hang vertically in the water, waving long antennaelike rays on their heads to sense, or perhaps lure, prey. In this head-up position, the fish can probably see potential meals silhouetted against the down-streaming light.
Oarfish have no teeth, and inhale to eat, sucking in krill, fish and squid.
As far as how big these fish get, oarfish are the subjects of typical fish stories. Several news reports said that the fish grow to 56 feet. My college ichthyology textbook, however, says the fish’s maximum length is 26 feet. Love goes a bit bigger at 35 feet, and one of my favorite marine science websites, that of the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History, reports 36 feet. (See tinyurl.com/mqyklmk.)
That’s several surfboards short of 56, but still. Learning that three-story-tall fish hang upright in the water column makes me fall in love with the ocean all over again.
A 36-foot long oarfish weighs about 600 pounds.
If you catch an oarfish, as gill-netters off Baja occasionally do, it seems as if they would have fish meals for months. But no. Love, in his book, explains why: “Scandinavians report that oarfish flesh sucks big time and even dogs won’t eat it. However, I imagine dogs would roll in it, big time.”
After seeing an oarfish swim in the BBC video clip — click here — the oarfish doesn’t look to me like the sea serpent imagined by sailors of old. It looks like streaming ribbons trimming a true gift from the sea. I would roll in an oarfish, too. That I’d remember.
Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com
©2013 Susan Scott