Mythical ‘Sea Serpent’ Comes into the Light

Artist’s view of an oarfish, alive in the ocean depths. (Illustration by E. Paul Oberlander ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Davy Jones’ Locker, it might be called, this final resting place of a sea serpent.  In a darkened back room at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland, ichthyologists Jeff Williams and Kris Murphy prepare to break the seal of a time capsule, a faded jar the color of yellow-green sea glass. A container that is a coffin.

Hidden on a dark upper shelf for 47 years, an oarfish has come into the light. (Photograph by Sandra Raredon.)
Hidden on a dark upper shelf for 47 years, an oarfish has come into the light. (Photograph by Sandra Raredon.)

Williams and Murphy lift the lead-weight jar from the uppermost shelf at the end of a row in the support center’s fish collection, place it on a steel cart, and wheel it to a lab where fluorescent lights illuminate the contents. And where there are instruments for prying open the tightly shut, three-feet-high by one-foot-wide jar.

Once through the lab’s double-door entrance, Williams tries to free the jar’s top. “That lid is wedged in almost like it was superglued shut,” he says.

Finally, after several twists of a wrench, open sesame. Within, an 11-feet-long fish with iridescent fins lies in repose, floating in preservative.

An oarfish that measures more than 11 feet.
Scientists at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Support Center measure a long-lost oarfish: 11 feet, 2 inches. (Photograph by Sandra Raredon.)

It’s an adult oarfish that, at best guess, washed up near St. Petersburg Beach, Florida, on April 6, 1967. According to a report in the next day’s St. Petersburg Times, retired Rear Admiral Edward Ellsberg found the fish floating in the Gulf surf and dragged it ashore.

Ellsberg hauled it to the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Laboratory in St. Pete Beach. Scientists there donated the oarfish to the Smithsonian.

Little but a one-inch silver tag reading USNM (U.S. National Museum) 201458, a clue buried with the fish, heralds its existence. Marker aside, there’s no record of the oarfish in the museum’s database. The fish had been lost in time, its grave undisturbed for 47 years.

Now the “sea serpent” has come to light. It will receive an official catalog date: 2014. It’s the only adult oarfish in the Smithsonian’s collections.

The fish’s half-dollar-sized silver eyes seem to register our presence. I reach out to touch its scales. They’re firm and far from cold. Shimmering flecks soon cover my hand.

Although I know it’s too late for this oarfish, every instinct wants to return the beautiful fish to the sea. But the oarfish will soon be on its way to the Museum Support Center’s “Oh My!” fish collection, a display of eye-catching species.

Image of oarfish up-close.
The oarfish’s huge silver eye, the better to see with in The Deep, is clearly visible in this image. (Photograph by Sandra Raredon.)

Sea serpents among us

With its eerie, sinuous silhouette, it’s no wonder the oarfish has long been mistaken for a sea serpent. The sea-monster tales of Aristotle, Pliny and other classical observers are likely accounts of oarfish, scientists believe.

Called “king of the palace under the sea” by Japanese fishermen, the oarfish is the longest teleost (bony, rather than cartilaginous, fish) in the ocean. A member of the family Regalecidae, it may reach lengths of more than 20 feet.  The serpentine fish is found in temperate waters around the world, usually at depths of 60 to 1,600 feet.

Ichthyologists understand little more about oarfish today than they did in 1771, when the first specimen was described in the scientific literature by Morton Brunnich, a Danish naturalist. He found the fish on a beach near a coastal farm in Norway.

A few encounters with this rare creature have occurred at sea, but despite attempts to lure it close enough to a ship to catch, none has succeeded. What we know about oarfish is mostly from research on their washed-ashore bodies.

One of the first oarfish filmed alive.
Oarfish photographed in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico in August, 2011. (Photograph by BP/Trustees of the Deepwater Horizon/Louisiana State University)

Finally, a live oarfish

Would scientists ever observe an oarfish alive in the briny deep?

It happened in 2008, and is documented in a video recorded in the Gulf of Mexico. The fish was one of five glimpsed between 2008 and 2011. The views, through the eye of a remotely operated undersea vehicle (ROV), show the first live oarfish filmed in its habitat, according to biologist Mark Benfield of Louisiana State University.

On the morning of July 10, 2008, an ROV operated by Saipem-America conducted a survey on behalf of the Gulf SERPENT Project, an industry-academia research partnership.  The ROV floated just below a semi-submersible drilling rig, the Thunder Horse. As scientists watched from a control room aboard Thunder Horse, the ROV met up with something “oriented vertically in the water, with its head pointing upward,” remembers Benfield.

The submersible approached, and the wraithlike image slowly resolved into an oarfish. The ROV inched closer, “but the oarfish gradually retreated,” Benfield says, “propelling itself with undulations of its dorsal fin.”  It swam vertically, not horizontally.

“The fish’s behavior was fascinating,” says Benfield.  “It moved backward and downward not head first but tail first, and at quite a good speed.  It was a big fish, somewhere between 16 and 32 feet long.

“The Gulf oarfish are adding important information to our picture of the lives of these ‘sea serpents.’”

The “oarfish alive!” tale doesn’t end in the Gulf.  Earlier this year, tourists near Baja, Mexico, paddled into a huge surprise: a 15-feet-long oarfish. A spectacular experience, the kayakers later extolled, posting a video of their close encounter of the piscine kind.

If such a fish can exist, the depths of the sea may be teeming with creatures we know nothing about.



Award-winning science journalist and ecologist Cheryl Lyn Dybas, a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Writers, brings a passion for wildlife and conservation to National Geographic, Natural History, National Wildlife, BioScience, Yankee and many other publications, and is a Field Editor at Ocean Geographic. Eye-to-eye with the wild is her favorite place to be.