Oarfish on the beach near Oceanside (photo: Mark Bussey, Associated Press)
The arrival of two dead giant oarfish along the California coast within a week’s time had people in this country speculating about the sea serpents that were perhaps inspired in antiquity by these deep-ocean dwellers.
Their presence on the beach in San Diego County’s Oceanside and floating in the water near Catalina Island jolted people who wondered weather global warming or some other human affront to nature was flushing the rarely seen eel-like creatures from their normal home, deep beneath the waves.
In Japan, some may have been wondering where the earthquakes were because amid the myths and rumors that surround the world’s longest bony fish, which can reach 50 feet in length, is an enduring belief that the “Messenger from the Sea God’s Palace” shows up before a big shaker.
Around 20 oarfish washed up on Japanese beaches shortly before the devastating 9.0 Tohoku quake and tsunami hit in 2011, setting off a wave of speculation that was never scientifically resolved.
Some scientists say the deep-sea fish could theoretically be in a position to sense the rumblings beneath the ocean floor before they manifest themselves above ground. Others say oarfish enjoy the depths but are not bottom-dwellers and are incapable of detecting the movements of tectonic plates early.
A more likely explanation is that the fish, which are not strong swimmers, merely got caught in a current and were carried to a place where they couldn’t survive. One of them was quickly deemed a healthy female, ready for spawning with hundreds of thousands of eggs. Or maybe it was recently-revealed ocean fracking by oil companies that spooked them. Or sonar blasts from Navy testing. Or radiation draining into the water across the ocean at Fukushima.
This is one mystery that probably won’t be solved by the post-mortems being performed on the oarfish. The rarity of encounters with live oarfish will complicate any diagnosis of what led to their deaths. Little is known of the species in general. We don’t know how many there are, and if their populations are growing or shrinking.
What we do know is oarfish don’t have teeth, eat plankton and aren’t a threat to humans; they have soft skin instead of scales; and their flesh, though edible, has the consistency of gelatinous goo.
Sometimes it’s best to maintain an aura of mystery about strange things.