A while back I was sitting in front of the computer editing my latest underwater video footage when the phone rang. Now I use e-mail for most of my communication, and generally despise phones since they always interrupt me in the middle of something. Unfortunately, like Pavlov's dogs, I'm conditioned to reach for the device when I hear it ring. Expecting it to be a call from a telemarketer or a political candidate, I was pleased to hear the voice of Jake Brannock calling from Descanso Beach Ocean Sports (DBOS).
Jake said that Robert from the DBOS crew had found an unusual fish in the water off Hamilton Cove. He wanted an ID on it. Based on the description Jake gave of red pectoral fins, there were only two fish I could think of offhand... the opah and the oarfish. However the body shape didn't sound right for the former and the size was "wrong" for the latter. I had a meeting coming up so I asked if I could see it the next day. In the morning I parked the Dr. Bill Mobile at the dive park and walked over to Descanso Beach. Aurora had Robert get the bag with the fish from the refrigerator.
There, in the plastic bag was the smallest oarfish I've ever seen. It was barely a foot long, which is why I didn't think it could be that species since they are reported to reach lengths of nearly 60 feet! But then my rational scientific mind kicked in. Heck, many decades ago Dr. Bill started life as a tiny embryo... and look at him now! Even the monstrous oarfish had to begin with a fertilized egg and grow from there. The only two that I've ever seen were in the 10-12 foot category, but the small size of this one made it easy to fit the entire fish into a single photograph! Heck, I barely needed my wide angle lens.
With so little first-hand knowledge of this species, I turned once again to former Cousteau and UCSB associate Dr. Milton Love's fantastic new book on the fish of the Pacific coast. Based on that, it is still uncertain whether there is just one species, or two or three. One respected expert on them believes one species, Regalecus russelii
lives in the Pacific Ocean while another, R. glesne
, frequents the waters of the Atlantic and Mediterranean. In the 18th century naturalist Patrick Russell named the first species.
Dr. Love states that so little is known about these deep water fish that he had to combine information about all the oarfish. He states that the maximum length is only 35 feet and they weigh up to almost 600 pounds. The first statistic is much shorter than the reported length of 56 feet that I have seen elsewhere. Perhaps that is due to a tale told by one angler about the oarfish that got away? Milton says that our Pacific species is known from Topanga Beach, California, to Chile and from just below the ocean's surface to a mile down. Heck, James Cameron of Titanic and Avatar fame has been found much deeper than that!
I've mentioned the bright red fins. The dorsal fin runs continuously along the back from just behind the head to the tail. The silvery body is very elongate and thin from side-to-side, making it appear like a bright ribbon. Therefore, the fact that DNA studies show that oarfish are probably closely related to ribbonfish comes as no surprise! Underwater imager and Facebook friend Jonathan Bird observed one while SCUBA diving off Nassau in the Caribbean. It was encountered at about 40 feet in a vertical position with the head pointing towards the surface. Bird described what looked like fishing lures attached to the end and along the length of two long "antennae" which were directed out at right angles to the body.
It is believed that oarfish feed largely on planktonic animals such as shrimp-like euphausids, squids and fish. Very little is known about their mating habits. I assume the oarfish must be somewhat shy and want to keep it that way. One 11 foot oarfish taken off Japan was sexually mature, but two slightly smaller ones (9 and 10 ft) were not.. In the Mediterranean, tiny eggs about 1/10th inch in diameter and larvae are seen near the surface during winter.
The infrequent sightings of oarfish, including several observed on Catalina, are usually of dying or dead individuals. It is very rare to see them actually alive in the water although gill netters in the southern Sea of Cortez occasionally catch them. Given the shape of the body, filets would be extremely long and very thin making them difficult to put in the Armstrong's Seafood display case. It would probably not be worth the effort as Milton reports that the Scandinavians (and their dogs) do not consider the flesh edible. Not sure what might prey on them in the briny deep. Not sure I even want to find out what could swallow a 35-60 ft fish... even a thin one!
Image caption: Oarfish showing thin silvery body and elongated red pelvic fin, head of oarfish; dorsal fin of oarfish and extensions off rear.