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Sea Stories: Encounter With an Oarfish
By Jonathan Bird
As a professional underwater cinematographer, I spend a good deal of time diving in different parts of the world documenting on film the creatures I find. Generally, I find myself filming the things which sell: sharks, dolphins, whales, and other large animals. I sometimes have chance encounters with species I’ve never seen or even heard about. Rarely, however, are they as unusual as my encounter with an Oarfish.
In early May, 1996, I spent several days diving with sharks around New Providence Island, Bahamas. On this particular assignment, I was shooting still photos of Silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis). The Silkies, being pelagic fish, are encountered frequently at a dive site known as the AUTEC (Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center) Buoy. This is a buoy about 10 meters across anchored in about 2,000 meters of water by the U.S. Navy for use in submarine testing at the Tongue of the Ocean off Nassau. When no subs are being tested, the Navy allows dive boats to go out and dive around the buoy. It is a well-known fact that large floating objects like buoys, logs or sargassum weed often attract large numbers of fish. Nobody knows for sure why this happens, but it may be that small fishes seek shelter and hiding from larger predators at these convenient “rest stops” and the larger fishes go there to find the smaller fishes. Some biologists suspect that they may just like the shade. Frequently, divers at the AUTEC buoy see not just Silky sharks, but also other pelagic fishes, such as marlin, wahoo and tuna.
On the second dive of the day, I jumped off the boat around noon and began a slow descent. When I reached about 40 feet, I stopped and waited for sharks to swim by. Since the boat captain busied himself with chumming the water above, I had little trouble photographing the sharks. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a shape ascending from the bottomless blue below, about 20 meters away. Swimming as fast as I could, I kept an eye on the shape to determine what it might be. I quickly realized it was a fish, but a species with which I was not familiar. It had an extremely thin, ribbon-like, compressed body which was positioned vertically in the water, with the anterior end pointed up. It had two long “antennae” with what looked like yellow, diamond-shaped fishing lures on the ends, as well as several along the length of each “antenna”. It had a large plume of strands on its head, which pointed up towards the surface. The body appeared silvery and reflective. Its dorsal fin ran the length of its back, and undulated to propel the fish. It had no caudal fin, since the body tapered to a point where the tail would be. The large eyes immediately made me think that I was looking at a deep sea creature.
As I approached within 3 meters of the fish, I noticed that its antennae were positioned horizontally, one pointing to the left, and the other to the right, so that the animal resembled a cross. I fired a shot and noticed that for some reason my strobe didn’t fire. I tinkered with the strobe cable a bit. As I went to take another shot, the fish began to retreat back into the depths. It first rotated both antennae to vertical, above its head. Then, rather than turn around and swim down head first, the fish undulated its dorsal fin in reverse and swam “tail first” back into the blue water, quickly going out of sight. It reminded me of an elevator, which maintains the same orientation whether its going up or down. The whole encounter lasted less than 30 seconds.
My single photograph is the only one I got. Of course, when I got back to the dock and described the fish to the people at the dive shop, they thought I was crazy. They had never in the past seen such a fish, even though they have dived the same exact site thousands of times. Since I had no idea what we had seen, I contacted Dr. Milton Love, an ichthyologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara upon my return from the trip. Working from a duplicate slide, he identified the fish as the Oarfish (Regalecus glesne) noting however, that the head appeared more blunt than in illustrations of the fish. Just to be sure, he passed the image along to Dr. Dick Rosenblatt at Scripps, who confirmed the identification, astounded that we were probably the first to ever photograph this animal in its natural habitat.
The Oarfish may be the animal which precipitated the legends about “sea serpents.” This long, skinny fish, with its strange-looking head covered in protrusions, and reaching lengths perhaps as long as 50 feet by one account, would be more than enough to frighten the pants off a drunken sailor! Yet, other than legend, very little information has been learned about Oarfishes.
The first scientific account of the fish was probably in 1771, when Danish naturalist Morton Brunnich made a scientific note of a beast he found washed up on beach in Norway. With a dorsal fin running the length of its long skinny body, and a curious plume of feather-like protrusions on its head, the Oarfish, as it came to be known because of its long oar-like pelvic fins, was completely new to science. Few of these fish have appeared over the years, usually found dead at the surface or washed up on a beach, so very little is known about their lives or habits.
Several new pieces of scientific information were learned about this fish from my brief encounter. Previously, all the information available came from dead specimens. In observing a living animal, I discovered that the fish swims with undulations of the dorsal fin only, not the entire body. I also found that the Oarfish seems to prefer a vertical orientation in the water column. The way in which it holds its pelvic fins was not known before, and the coloration of the fish (very silvery) was different than seen in dead specimens.
Within two months of my encounter, another encounter with an Oarfish occurred with divers. This was on the west coast of the United States, off the Baja Peninsula. However, the fish was nearly dead at the time, so no scientifically credible data about the habits of a healthy animal could be taken from the experience. Nonetheless, it seemed to me like an impossible coincidence!
Sure, I got plenty of shark images on that trip, but I never expected to see something as weird and exciting as an Oarfish. The ocean keeps her secrets well, and it is with great irregularity that we get a glimpse into something new. Who knows what other strange and beautiful animals are lurking below just waiting to be seen for the first time by mankind.