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Serpent-like oarfish floats up in Malibu; natural history museum will study the creature

December 2, 2010 | 12:09 pm

  The rare, ribbon-shaped sea creature was far from home when it washed ashore in Malibu this week.

La-me-malibu-oarfishW A runner spotted the 12-foot-long fish with silvery scales and a scarlet red dorsal fin floundering in the waters just off Malibu Colony on Sunday. Before long, the serpentine fish washed ashore, dead. And just as quickly, word of the creature from the deep began to spread.

 Biologists with the California Wildlife Center arrived and quickly identified it as an oarfish, a species seldom seen this far from the deep sea, where it is believed to reign as the longest bony fish in the ocean.

Oarfish are largely a mystery to scientists, but they are typically found 700 to 3,000 feet beneath the surface in tropical waters, where they feed on small squid and krill.

“The fact that it was close to shore at all is unusual,” said Cynthia Reyes, director of the California Wildlife Center.

Sharks, rays and other distressed animals often wash up along the Malibu coastline, but never before has Reyes come across a creature as rare -- or as far from its usual comfort zone -- as an oarfish.

After taking tissue samples, the Malibu-based center offered the fish to the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, which on Tuesday took custody of the serpent-like fish. It is now being housed in a freezer as it awaits testing. Eventually, it will join three other oarfish and an oarfish larvae at the museum.

Researchers said they are excited to have another example of a species that is renowned in sea lore but poorly understood scientifically. Bearing a closer resemblance to fanciful renderings of the Loch Ness Monster than to a perch or mackerel, the oarfish can grow to more than 30 feet in length and is credited with spawning many of the sea serpent legends told by sailors over the years.

“They're long and silvery and they undulate like a serpent would as they swim through the water,” said H.J. Walker, a senior museum scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which has several oarfish in its collection.

Walker said they earned their name for the elongated pelvic fins that give them the appearance of “rowing” through the water. The fish are long, thin as a rail and look more like a serpent than a fish. 

Because of its relatively short length, scientists assume the fish found Sunday is a juvenile. But they are eager to learn what it last ate, how it died and study why it might have come ashore.

“They need a lot of room to move around to function normally,” said Rick Feeney, a collections manager for ichthyology at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. “So when they come close to shore they’re in trouble and close to death.”

One of the museum’s existing specimens, a 14-foot oarfish recovered from Santa Catalina Island in 2006, is well-known to visitors. It is suspended in alcohol in a giant case in the grand foyer.

That oarfish came ashore under similar circumstances, swimming into Big Fisherman Cove, where researchers from the Wrigley Marine Science Center dove with the fish and photographed it before it died.

In recent years, researchers have captured video of an oarfish swimming deep underwater in the Gulf of Mexico and spotted one swimming not far from the shore in Baja California. In 1996 a group of Navy SEALS found a 23-foot-long oarfish off Coronado.


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Photo: Word spread quickly when the oarfish washed ashore Sunday on the Malibu Colony beach. The deep-sea fish is typically found 700 to 3,000 feet down where they feed on small squid and krill. Credit: Darrell Rae