National Geographic Daily News
Photo of an oarfish.

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.

Photograph by Mark Bussey, AP

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published October 22, 2013

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.”

(Learn more about living oarfish.)

39 comments
reisa latorra
reisa latorra

We saw 3 more freshly dead oarfish (and 2 others a bit more decomposed) on a beach on the western side of Isla San Jose in Baja Mexico on November 10th while on a kayak trip.  The largest was about 18 ft long.  I have photos but I don't think I can post them in a comment.  I can send photos if anyone is interested.

Steve Reid
Steve Reid

Its not a sign of an earthquake, but a sign that radiation has contaminated the depths of our ocean from Fukushima disaster. 

Aubrey Qotho
Aubrey Qotho

only the wise will understand, Daniel 12:10.

Earthquake as voiced out by the last scriptural prophet to the Gentiles. W. M. Branham

Brigette Hyacinth
Brigette Hyacinth

First time I am seeing & knowing about this creature. Very interesting indeed!  What lies beyond???

Anuar Musaddad Osman
Anuar Musaddad Osman

Perhaps its true that this fish brings along sign of earthquake .beware...

Stephanie Goodman
Stephanie Goodman

Back in 1997 I went to Cabo. There I went snorkling in the Sea of Cortez, I turned to my right about twenty feet away or so and saw a huge, what I thought was a 'huge eal', the thing was maybe 12-15 feet long, but it was strange looking really thick around. I just thought thats what  they must look like here! OH! my gosh!!! This is what I saw. I was in water about 15-20 feet deep. I was about maybe 50 yards out from the beach. This is soooo incredable! Snorkling in Cabo I found nothing but sand, an underwater desert if you will.

Dawn Larrison
Dawn Larrison

I would say radiation leaks and oil spills have made them surface. Oil is obviously heavier than water, and will sink to the bottom. We were already warned not to eat out of the Pacific Ocean any longer due to radiation leaks, and this is just proving that our ocean is in serious danger.

varghese kodikulam
varghese kodikulam

it is the first time that I came to know of this creature.  would like to know more about it.


Sasha Carter
Sasha Carter

Hm. Thats a bad omen. 

California shouldn't let its guard down. 

Peinan Wang
Peinan Wang

Wanna bring it home and fry it........while,I am just kidding.  Anyway,it is really an interesting picture.

Lewis L
Lewis L

Hardly a sign of an upcoming catastrophe.  2 oarfish? Maybe a sign of something if more show up but 2 within this amount of time is hardly a sign of anything other than the media hyping the story

Alejandro Lugo
Alejandro Lugo

so that's what Milotic's inspiration was... very cool looking fish, awesome pictures

Bailey London
Bailey London

Very interesting, I wonder if methane gas releases have infected the ocean, and the oarfish, but seeing as the only species found is the oarfish, and there have only been two, I'm thinking it's highly unlikely. Funny to think, though, that we haven't seen hardly any of these species above the surface before, and here wash up two. Maybe it IS some kind of pollution or other predator that is killing them off? Staying tuned to see how this turns out.

robert brooke
robert brooke

Was the most recent specimen male or female?

Isis Lei
Isis Lei

oarfish  is very cute:)

farid chougui
farid chougui

In my view to see a deep sea creature being wached off is a part of nature,here in Australia on the New South Wales coast of Australia and Tasmania, dead giant Squids have been reported to the media in the past years.However when TWO of the same extremly rare specie have been washed ashore within weeks of one another,i believe they didn't "commit suicide",and perhaps it might be and idea to investigate and work out why and how this had happened...Only a personal view on the matter.

Joe Villacorta
Joe Villacorta

is mother nature trying to tell us something.........

Wide Eye
Wide Eye

Or maybe from high radiation levels due to Japan, Fukushima. Come on people read the news, this scientist is not the brightest. 

Brad Busch
Brad Busch

Has anyone questioned if these incidents are related to methane releases in the pacific ocean that occurred in September? Perhaps this gas has poisoned the deeper sea environment and it has begun now to effect these apex predators.

Carol L.
Carol L.

@ Lewis L,

Well, they are rare fish - it's not like having two mackerel wash up on shore - and they both washed up in So. Cal.  One oarfish washing up is cool; a second, so soon after the first, is disturbing.  Wonder what's happening in that layer of the ocean - oxygen depletion?

Marc T.
Marc T.

@Lewis L There may be more but they may remain undiscovered.  Not wise to quickly dismiss the matter.

Marc T.
Marc T.

@Bailey London There may be more but they may remain undiscovered.  Not wise to quickly dismiss the matter

laura qual
laura qual

@Wide Eye yes we need to worry about the radiation that was and continues to be released but only the future will show the results in birth defects and desieses caused by the radiation. No nuclear power plant should be built in a fault area or on the bank of major water. There is no clear defined way to completely contain a leak, breach or melt down

Charles Becker
Charles Becker

@Brad Busch i would not call a plankton eater an "apex predator" but this theory is viable none the less.  I would really like to see a 56' one wash up though

Deiter Paas
Deiter Paas

@Adam Simpson @Dawn Larrison

crude can either float or sink. its buoyancy is very close to neutral. some crude, like Canadian shale oil, sinks in water. that is what make clean up of the Kalamazoo River so difficult after the pipeline broke. but water itself does not have the same density everywhere, oceans in particular have zones and strata of varying density. it is not exactly correct to say that crude eventually sinks. however crude is a mix of complex polymers and isomers, not uniform in composition. what does happen over time is the various fractions tend to separate out, some sinking others floating.

laura qual
laura qual

@Marc T. @Sasha Carter with all the faults that would be almost the whole world not just S.CA. With what we do to our planet it's about time it revolted against us. We will only sow what we reap. Me I use a water filter and bottles only for emergencies and recycle, and try not to waste anything. Hopefully others are doing the same so our grandchildren can enjoy our world.

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