Scientists have confirmed that the 14-foot oarfish that washed up on the shore of California last week was in fact female, and she was ready to give birth. The 14-foot “sea monster” was the second one discovered in the area, the first located by a snorkeling scientist was 18-feet long and laying on the bottom of the ocean. The female’s 6-foot long ovaries were full of hundreds of thousands of eggs that were almost ready to be laid.
Had she lived, she would have deposited her eggs and left them to float on the surface of the ocean until hatching. Oarfish have been observed spawning off the coast of Mexico between July and December, but little else is known about their reproductive habits.
The oarfish was dissected Monday by marine biologists, and H.J. Walker of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography reports there is no clear cause of death for either fish. The mommy-fish-to-be was healthy, although she lost her tail somewhere along the way while alive. There were also disc-shaped wounds on her body believed to be from cookiecutter sharks, but none of these injuries was fatal, according to Walker.
The term oarfish may refer to one of four different species, but usually indicates the best known, Regalecus glesne or “king of herrings.” No one is certain why these creatures are called “oarfish” but it may have to do with their appearance. The oarfish is the longest bony fish in the world and has an elongated body and oar-like fins. It has a bright red dorsal fin that runs from just above the eyes to the tail. Oarfish have also been called “ribbonfish”, possibly due to the bright fins and flowing, scaleless body.
Oarfish can grow up to 50 feet in length, weighing as much as 600 pounds. Although they are a challenging game fish, their flesh is not considered edible.
Oarfish are quiet creatures, keeping to deep waters most of the time. Scientists theorize that they are not very good swimmers. Phil Hastings, curator of the marine vertebrate collection at Scripps explains, ”If they get disoriented and in the surf zone, they (will probably) have trouble (getting) back out to sea.”
Scientists believe oarfish may float near the surface of the ocean when they are sick or dying, giving rise to legends of sea serpents from old-time mariners. Normally, these fish live at about 500 to 1000 feet, but have been found as deep as 3000 feet. This may be the reason why we know so little about the oarfish.
Some have been filmed in the wild and have been seen swimming using only a wavelike motion of its long dorsal fin. They have also been seen in vertical positions with their heads pointed up toward the surface. Theories suggest the oarfish does this to feed on plankton, small shrimp and tiny squid strained through specialized gills.
Oarfish seem to have no reaction aside from curiosity when confronted with humans or ROV –remotely operated vehicles. Scientists report that this indicates these fish may have very few natural predators. Almost everything known about these creatures has been gleaned from beached or washed up specimens, or accidental catches by fishermen. Oarfish have also been known to wash up onto shore after storms, perhaps after getting caught near the surface.
Although scientists have yet to discover a reason for the death of the mommy oarfish or the larger one before her, they have taken samples and sent them to various researchers for further study. Some theorize the deaths of the two may be related, but more information is needed before a determination can be made. Human fascination with the creatures of our world’s waters remains unquenched as deep-sea exploration continues to bring us closer to discovering what lies in the depths of our oceans.
- The “king of herrings” is not actually a herring at all, but was spotted swimming near schools of herring. The great difference in sizes brought about the the name.
- The largest giant oarfish measured was 56 feet long.
- Before these last two, the most recent stranding of an oarfish was near Vandenberg Air Force Base in 2011.
By: Brandi Tasby