5 Surprising Facts About the Oarfish That Has Been Washing Up on Beaches

Two of the deep-sea creatures have been found in less than a week.

This 14-foot (4.3-meter) oarfish washed up on a beach near Oceanside, California, on October 18, 2013. Rarely seen at the surface, the deep-sea fish is the second to hit California's coast in less than a week.


Two rare oarfishes have washed up on California beaches in less than a week, prompting much excitement among marine scientists and the public. Oarfish live in deep water and are rarely seen at the surface, though they are thought to be the inspiration for “sea serpent” tales of old.

On Friday, a 14-foot (4.3-meter) oarfish was found on a beach in Oceanside, California. Just five days earlier, staff of the Catalina Island Marine Institute had found the body of a dead 18-foot (5.5-meter) oarfish in Toyon Bay on California’s Catalina Island.

Milton Love, a biologist at the University of California in Santa Barbara, told the Toronto Star that he doubts the rare double find is merely coincidence. He said he suspects the long, bony fish were pushed toward shore by strong currents and then battered to death by swells.

The Internet has been buzzing about the oarfish finds, including a lot of questions about the poorly known animals, as well as plenty of jokes:

To set the record straight, here’s a list of some of the most surprising facts about oarfish.

1. The oarfish is the world’s longest bony fish.

The giant oarfish (Regalecus glesne) was first described in 1772, but it has been rarely seen because it lives at considerable depths. It is not well known, but giant oarfish are thought to frequent depths around 3,300 feet (1,000 meters).

Giant oarfish are the longest known living species of bony fish, reaching a length of 56 feet (17 meters). They can weigh up to 600 pounds (270 kilograms).

The silvery fish are sometimes called the “king of herrings” because of their superficial resemblance to the smaller fish, but they are named oarfish because of their long pectoral fins, which resemble oars. In Palau, where they were featured on a stamp in 2000, they are called rooster fish, thanks to their slender, reddish fin. Some people also call them ribbonfish because of their body form.

2. Giant oarfish tastes like gelatinous goo.

Not a lot is known about the conservation status of giant oarfish because they have rarely been observed alive, although fishermen do occasionally pull them up in nets as unwanted bycatch.

People have tried eating them, but “their flesh is flabby and gooey,” according to a NOAA website.

3. Giant oarfish eat tiny plankton and aren’t dangerous.

Although oarfish were likely the source of many historic tales of sea serpents and sea monsters, they are hardly dangerous to people. Oarfish feed on tiny plankton and have a small opening to their digestive system. They don’t even have real teeth, instead having flimsier structures called gill rakers to catch tiny organisms.

Oarfish have occasionally been seen at the water’s surface, but scientists think they are pushed there by storms or strong currents, or they end up there when in distress or dying. A sputtering oarfish may look like a terrifying sea monster, but it is not thought to pose a danger to people or boaters.

4. Oarfish lack scales.

Unlike many bony fish, oarfish lack scales. Instead, they have tubercules and a silvery coat of a material called guanine. Although they are adapted to survive under high pressure, at the surface their skin is soft and easily damaged.

5. Oarfish have been said to forecast earthquakes.

In Japan, oarfish have long figured into folklore. Smaller than the giant oarfish, the related slender oarfish (Regalecus russelii) is known there as the "Messenger from the Sea God's Palace." And according to traditional belief, if many of the fish wash up, it may signal a coming earthquake.

According to Japan Times, there could be some scientific basis to that story, even if scientists don’t currently use fish behavior to predict tremors. Kiyoshi Wadatsumi, a scientist who studies earthquakes at the nonprofit organization e-PISCO, told the paper, “Deep-sea fish living near the sea bottom are more sensitive to the movements of active faults than those near the surface of the sea.”