The picture was amazing. A line of people holding an 18-foot oarfish that had washed onto the beach in California. Then I squinted my eyes and my mouth fell open. There in the middle, a former student of mine was holding an oarfish! Instantly there was excitement and jealousy.
Way back in the 80’s when I was a student in seventh-grade study hall, I had no smartphone or computer to busy my eyes and fingers. I had World Book Encyclopedias with burgundy, faux-leather binding and gold inset letters. The inset letter I went after most was F. I would open F to ‘Fish’ to stare at the beautifully illustrated rich color plates. Several fish always drew my eye including the Pacman-ghost-shaped oceanic sunfish (Mola mola) and the lantern-bearing deep-sea angler fish. But the fish that most captured my imagination was the serpentine and fantastical oarfish (Regalecus glesne). How could it not capture an imagination with an up to 50-foot serpentine body of silvery white, with a long plume of a red crest and a body-length dorsal fin that undulates like a serpent of its own?
Since those study-hall days, the oarfish has been on my Touch List. I will likely never check an oarfish off because it lives up to 3000 feet below the surface (though they can be found at the surface) in tropical and temperate waters. If I was able to touch it in its native habitat I would touch a long ribbon of a fish oriented vertically with its red dorsal fin shimmering with undulations. The red, flowing crest on its head would invoke the oarfish’s majestic moniker, “King of Herring”. As I touched it, it might be a king enjoying a meal small crustaceans filtered through its toothless mouth. I would be touching the longest bony fish in the world. I would touching a sea serpent that wasn’t a fantasy.
My best hope is to touch an oarfish is to touch one that washes up on shore, which are how most oarfish are found. This is how Trevor Mia, a former student of mine from Sewanee, was able to not only touch but hold an 18-foot oarfish. The oarfish had washed up on Catalina Island, Califorina, where Trevor is working. In the past week, yet another oarfish has washed up on the California coast. It amazes that the body of such a large fish, and a large meal for a hungry ocean, makes it all the way from the realm of fantasy to the the realm of barefoot humans.
To my knowledge no one has touched a live oarfish in the wild. It has, however, been recently recorded in the wild. Between 2008 and 2011 scientists from Louisiana State University (my alma mater! Geaux Tigers!) recorded in the Gulf of Mexico the first in situ observations of oarfish. As you can see in the video below, the oarfish is not shy and doesn’t flee from the Remotely Operated Vehicle. Several scientists suggest that this lack of a flight response means oarfish have few predators. Otherwise, we know little about the ecology or behavior of these fish.