Giant Deep-Sea Oarfish Found off California Coast

This giant oarfish was found dead off Catalina Island Sunday. Photo: CIMI

Updated on October 16, 2013 at 11 am.

A deep-sea creature that is rarely seen, and was likely the inspiration for sea serpent tales among mariners of yore, has resurfaced.

On Sunday, staff of the Catalina Island Marine Institute (CIMI) found the body of a dead 18-foot (5.5-meter) long oarfish in Toyon Bay on California’s Catalina Island. The deceased animal was nearly intact, and may end up in a museum collection soon.

Time has reported that CIMI instructor Jasmine Santana was snorkeling in about 20 feet (6 meters) of water “when she spotted a half-dollar sized eye staring up at her.” The giant oarfish was resting on the sandy bottom.

Santana called her colleagues at CIMI.

Fifteen people then hauled the giant beast, the world’s longest bony fish, onto shore. In a news release, a CIMI staffer said: “In 32 years here, I have never seen anything like this!”

In June, Ocean Views reported on rare video of a swimming giant oarfish, taken near the Gulf of Mexico in 2011.

First described in 1772, the giant oarfish (Regalecus glesne) has rarely been seen alive, since it lives at considerable depths. It can be found at least 1,640 feet (500 meters) below the ocean’s surface.

Giant oarfish have occasionally washed up onto beaches, and a few have been seen in shallow water, often in distress and near death.

Giant oarfish are known to reach a length of 56 feet (17 meters), so this recent specimen find is hardly a record. The silvery fish are sometimes called the “king of herrings” but are named oarfish because of their long pectoral fins, which resemble oars.

“Oarfish are very much a mid-water to deep-water species,” Karla Heidelberg, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California’s Wrigley Marine Science Center, told National Geographic in June. “They’re almost never seen in surface waters.”

Not much is known about the giant oarfish’s conservation status since it is so hard to study. The fish are occasionally pulled up as bycatch in fishing nets, and they are thought to range widely around the planet. Scientists think they feed on krill and small crustaceans and squids.

Check out this video of the oarfish in life, captured by the GulfSERPENT project:

Mark Benfield, a professor at Louisiana State University and the leader of GulfSERPENT, told National Geographic in June that there were five videos of oarfish taken between 2008 and 2011, through use of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). The one above is the only one in high definition, and was captured in 2011 during research missions about the effects of oil spills. Once they spotted the fish, the team followed it for about ten minutes, Benfield said.

“We weren’t looking for oarfish,” Benfield explained. “This was just sheer luck. We happened to be in the right place at the right time and we were able to spend some time with this oarfish.”

In the video, a parasitic isopod (related to a garden rolly polly) can be seen on the oarfish’s dorsal fin.


Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science,,,, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen LightingBuild Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.