Wildlife researchers Tyler Dvorak and Amy Catalano stumbled over a big surprise – literally! – while walking on the beach along Catalina Island's Emerald Bay. They were in the middle of surveying for breeding birds when their path was blocked by a large oarfish that somehow wound up on shore. The tiny island lies just a few miles off the California coast, and while it's perhaps best known as a former celebrity hangout and for its herd of movie-star bison, it seems to have become something of a hotspot for the mysterious deep-sea fish.


Amy Catalano stands beside her find. Image:Tyler Dvorak/Catalina Island Conservancy.

It's rare to ever see an oarfish, living or dead, but this is the second time in as many years that one has washed up on Catalina Island. The first one was spotted in October of 2013: an 18-footer (5.4 metre) seen ailing in the shallows, which eventually died and was pulled to shore. Stranger still, a second oarfish turned up near San Diego that same week. And several months after that, two living oarfish were seen in very shallow waters off the coast of Baja. 

"What this means, we don't know." That's what Rick Feeney, an ichthyologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles told me in 2014. "The standard reason researchers have given in the past is that oarfish get injured at sea by strong storms and then wash up inshore when they die," he added. It could also be that oceanic currents are changing, or that oarfish are following their food as they get pulled to new places as a consequence of our changing climate. Similar explanations could be behind the current multi-year spate of sea lion deaths in California as well.

After photographing and documenting their 13-foot-long (4 metre) piscine find, Dvorak and Catalano reported it to their team at the Catalina Island Conservancy, a non-profit organisation that manages 88 percent of the island. The fish was necropsied before the carcass was shipped to Cal State Fullerton for preservation and further study.

Whatever the case may be, it's definitely special to get to see one of the true mysteries of the deep, a creature so odd that it may have inspired ancient mariners' tales of writhing sea serpents.

Image:Tyler Dvorak/Catalina Island Conservancy.
Image:Tyler Dvorak/Catalina Island Conservancy.