In 1973, American soldiers on the Mekong River in Laos killed and hauled ashore a massive 24-foot ribbon of a fish. It was the “Queen of the Naga,” claimed a postcard still widely circulated in Southeast Asia with the above photo, a mythical serpent thought to patrol these waters and that apparently enjoys the embrace of enlisted men.
In reality, though, the soldier had not caught a mythical beast. They weren’t even in Laos and it wasn’t even 1973. That picture with over a dozen men straining to lift the creature, one soldier so exhausted, it seems, that he had to remove his shirt and pants, was taken in 1996 near San Diego. What the men had in fact found on their early-morning jog was a stranded giant oarfish, aka “the king of the herrings,” from the Scandinavian folklore that claimed schools of the little fish dotingly followed their gargantuan leader about.
The creature’s proclivity for such strandings, and for surfacing on the open seas when sick or injured, has for thousands of years served as the likely inspiration for sea serpent legends the world over (Japanese lore says their strandings presage earthquakes and tsunamis — they don’t). Even with such history, we’re still struggling to understand this bizarre giant, which can grow to 28 feet long and, like a lizard jettisoning its tail, self-amputate up to 75 percent of its body, perhaps in anticipation of bikini season.
This could be the ocean’s most enigmatic and widely mythologized critter. One of the few people to observe a live specimen in its natural habitat, not simply stranded on a shoreline, is marine biologist Mark Benfield, who in 2013 published a paper detailing five sightings from a remotely operated underwater vehicle.
These are the first observations of healthy oarfish from an ROV. The remarkable footage, in convenient GIF format at right, captures a fish that glows almost as if lit by LEDs, thanks to a layer of guanine molecules, whose shine helps so many fish in the sea confuse and evade predators. With the oarfish, this shimmering compound will actually rub off on your hands when handling the creature, as if it’s wearing body glitter, or whatever the kids are doing to be sparkly these days.
Notice the oarfish’s famous red fins sprouting from the top of its head, which likely aid in species recognition, according to ichthyologist Tyson R. Roberts, who wrote an epic 266-page paper on the creature. (The lasers you see here and in other ROV videos, by the way, are called scalers — they allow scientists to take accurate length measurements.) The fish hovers vertically, hypnotically undulating its dorsal fin up and down, then retreats by switching to horizontal swimming, waving its whole body back and forth like an eel.
So if it can move like a typical fish, why bother going vertical? “We know that they feed on krill, the euphausiids, and if you’re looking for euphausiids and you’re in the ocean, then looking straight up will allow you to silhouette them against light from the surface,” said Benfield. “So that’s probably why they orient vertically. It also means that when a predator is looking downwards towards you, you’re presenting the minimal cross section to that animal.”