The Oarfish

Everything you need to know about the oarfish, the so-called mythical ‘sea serpant’

Published by Science Recorder | June 2013

by L. Clark Tate

When it comes to understanding the world around us nothing compares to time spent in the field. It is no surprise then that many oceanic discoveries echo stories told by the most experienced of oceanographers, sailors. NPR reported in January that the kraken is real and now we know that sea serpents exist as well, just not quite as expected.

Video footage of the serpent like oarfish, an elusive and mesmerizing deep water creature, has just been released to the public, reports the Los Angeles Times. Filmed 200 feet beneath the surface in the Gulf of Mexico, the beauty is shaped like an elongated oar blade and measures 8 feet. Blue, iridescent markings tattoo its sides and a rippling, translucent dorsal fin runs along much of its body. The portion of the dorsal fin topping the oarfish’s head is dramatically longer than the rest and brightly colored, as are its pelvic fins.

The video, captured in 2011, features a faint, vertical line of silver that slowly ventures near enough for the camera to record its silver rimmed eyes. This vertical orientation is counter intuitive and visually striking. Facing the surface allows the fish to search for super, krill and small crustaceans, while making it harder for its own predators to spot it from below says Mark Benfield, a Louisiana State University marine biologist.

Oarfish propel themselves by undulating their mohawk like dorsal fin “like a propeller”, according to Benfield, allowing them to slowly drift through the water column or shoot off into the darkness.

Benfield, lead author of a paper describing the video in the Journal of Fish Biology, formed unlikely partnerships with several oil companies in the Gulf of Mexico to gain the use of their oil spotting remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). The project, dubbed GulfSERPENT, takes advantage of these large and loud contraptions to search for marine life. Although ROVs designed specifically for scientific research shun the bright lights and lasers that undoubtedly confounded the oarfish, they are rare and difficult to schedule.

The ten minute oarfish video represents only a fraction of the 40 hours of footage Benfield collects a week. Oarfish have been recorded four times during the SERPENT project.

Numerous sightings did not squelched Benfield’s enthusiasm for recording the otherworldly oarfish. He remembers the day that this particular oarfish was discovered well.

“We were just finishing up scanning the water column about 200 feet below the surface when my technician yelled. I walked into the lab and saw this giant oarfish. I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ and we followed that thing for 10 minutes.”

Link to story on Science Recorder.

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