Mysteries of the Deep: Giant Oarfish
Mar 12, 2014
By J.P. Wickham, Expedition Guide, Safari Voyager
This week's trip in sunny Baja had a literal once-in-a-lifetime twist in store for the guests and crew of the Safari Voyager...an encounter with some mysterious leviathans of the deep. Giant Oarfish!
We had pulled into Isla San Francisco for a day of sun, sand and adventure. This volcanic island is quite rugged--speckled with tough, prickly desert plants like the cardon cactus. The high sea cliffs lend themselves to hikes with a splendid view, while a perfect crescent bay with its azure water and white sand invites you to play in a kayak or a paddleboard.
The guests were enjoying a beach party in the afternoon sun, complete with a chest of ice cold Mexican beer. All of sudden, a cry went up from the folks who had elected to saunter down the beach and explore a bit.
“THERE'S A GIANT FISH OVER HERE!”
The guests had spotted something special in the lagoon, a pair of oarfish, each greater than twelve feet in length!
Giant oarfish (Regalecus glesne) are exceedingly rare deep water bony fish in the family Regalecidae. They have an eel-like body shape with beautiful metallic scales, and can grow to be 36 feet long. They prefer water between 600 and 3,000 feet in depth, but have sometimes been seen feeding on krill at depths as shallow as 20 feet below the surface. They are so rare, in fact, that they are hardly ever seen still alive. They wash up on shore occasionally, but they are rarely observed in their natural habitat. Indeed, the first time a live one had ever been filmed was quite recent – in 2001.
The two guides manning the beach, Lia Stamatiou and Hannah Hindley, quickly realized what the guests had spotted, and they excitedly called it in to the vessel via radio. In a matter of minutes, guests and crew alike swarmed ashore to catch a view of these near-mythical leviathans. The two fish swam in the shallows of the lagoon, obviously dazed or ill, but still wondrous and beautiful. Guests in kayaks filmed videos of the fish swimming beneath them, and this writer was able get some video of one of them making its way along the bottom under its own power, thanks to a GoPro underwater camera.
We are currently investigating as to whether or not this footage will be of worth to the scientific community, in their efforts to study this mysterious species.
Sadly, the two fish grew more lethargic as the afternoon progressed, and eventually expired in the sun on the beach. It was sad to see them go, but at least they shared their final hours with our guests and crew. It was a truly rare and magical experience, one that made an already special trip all the more so. We're certain that our guests and crew will never forget it.
Lia Stamatiou, Expedition Leader for Un-Cruise Adventures
"The giant oarfish, Regalecus glesne, is thought to be the largest of the bony fish, with reported lengths of 10-11 meters. They are reportedly found in all temperate to tropical oceans of the world, but elusive due to their deep sea, planktonic nature, and most are observed dying or dead onshore. Little is definitively known about their ecology. The species appears to be primarily pelagic in nature, occupying open oceans. Two giant oarfish washed up in California in October 2013 affording researchers some new insights; they investigated the parasites of the fish especially, which provided some interesting insight to the fish's ecology. Oarfish are most likely responsible for the early stories of sea serpents.
My background is in fishery science, and I learned about the oarfish as one of those fish you will study but never see. As I stood on that beach at Isla San Francisco and watched two oarfish swim up to the beach near us, I was completely stunned. I was trying to reconcile what little two dimensional knowledge I had of the fish with the actual animal in front of me, which was one of the most surprising, and beautiful animals I had ever seen. In person, it was stunning in size but also coloration, fantastic iridescent blue skin and a vibrant red dorsal fin. The pair seemed stunned as they resisted repeated attempts by our crew to orient and push them off the beach. Eventually they had raked themselves on the sand to the point of exhaustion, and the birds descended to finish the job."
Video footage credit: first section filmed by guest Wendy Keaton in kayak; underwater footage by J.P. Wickham, an expedition guide with Un-Cruise Adventures