The giant oarfish is the longest bony fish in the world – reaching, according to some reports, as much as 56 feet from tip to tail, although recorded lengths are somewhat more modest. Its size and its snake-like shape have led to suggestions that it may have been the source of at least some legends of sea serpents.
In Europe, it has been called the “king of herrings,” perhaps because it would sometimes be sighted near herring shoals, which some fishermen believed it guided. In Japan, the coincident appearances of oarfish that have been washed ashore before earthquakes and tsunamis have led to the fish being regarded as a bad omen.
Almost all human encounters with oarfish have been ones in which the fish are dead or drying – washed onto the beach or swimming in a disoriented manner near to shore. The reason for that, simply, is that giant oarfish tend to inhabit deeper waters where human beings rarely venture.
But scientists with the appropriately-named SERPENT project (Scientific and Environmental ROV Partnership using Existing iNdustrial Technology) – a collaboration between marine researchers and the oil-and-gas industry, in which the latter provides the former with resources such as remote operated vehicles (ROVs) – have now recorded not one, not two, but five videos of the giant oarfish in its natural environment.
DNews posted part of one of the videos, complete with narration by lead researcher Mark Benfield, back in 2010; now Benfield and colleagues have compiled all the videos they took between January 2008 and August 2011 – using an ROV at depths of up to 1,600 feet in the Gulf of Mexico – and described their observations in a paper in the Journal of Fish Biology.
Interestingly, despite its long, lean form, the oarfish does not swim like a snake or an eel, but hangs almost vertically in the water. Renfield and colleagues report that the fact the fish did not immediately flee from the ROV’s bright lights suggest that they have few natural predators.
The paper’s publication generated plenty of excitement in the blogosphere, a tribute to the fish’s unusual appearance and the many mysteries that surround it. Even with this new video, most of those mysteries remain, disappearing with the oarfish into the inky blackness far below the ocean surface.
IMAGE: Screen grab of oarfish video. (Benfield et al.)