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California Oarfish Discoveries Only Scratch the Surface

An oarfish on display in Japan
An oarfish on display in Japan | Photo: muzina_shanghai/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Two weeks ago the oceans belched forth mystery and marvel. Jasmine Santana was snorkeling off the beach at Catalina Island's Toyon Bay when she happened across an oarfish.

One can only imagine what ricochets through one's sympathetic nervous system when a snake-like creature 18 feet long suddenly hoves into view. Ancient mariners likely went to their knees and prayed aloud for sins until that moment unprofessed. Marine biologists of today surmise that the serpentine, saucer-eyed oarfish, which can reach lengths of 50-plus feet, spawned the sea serpent myths of yore. Whether they did or didn't is anyone's guess, but there is no doubt Ms. Santana kept her wits. It is also possible that, as a marine science instructor at the Catalina Island Marine Institute (CIMI runs a popular camp at Toyon Bay), she benefited from mankind's current coin purse of knowledge, identifying the sinuous creature immediately after the first palsies subsided. Sadly, it also helped that the oarfish was dead.

No doubt Santana, and the gaggle of onlookers who helped haul the oarfish ashore, were excited; and the Catalina Island Marine Institute, too. Oarfish reside at depths of depths of 1,500 to 3,000 feet, and so are rarely seen, spotted mostly either dead or near dead when they surface and wash ashore. In a news release, CIMI proclaimed the Catalina oarfish find the "discovery of a lifetime." A few days later a 14-foot oarfish washed up in Oceanside.

I prefer to think of this not as mud in CIMI's face (though perhaps the press release might be rephrased to read "the discovery of a mayfly's lifetime"), but as yet another glimpse of the ocean's proclivity for endless surprise.

I keep a folder of such surprises: accounts of rare encounters with otherworldly oceanic denizens, new unveilings in deep sea exploration, the discovery of new behaviors and new oceanic species. This last category is particularly fun. My folder is brimming with revelations of new creatures: plate-size sea spiders, man-hole size starfish, carnivorous sponges covered with glass-like needles, six-gilled sharks, and bizarre bacteria (this last group seems a tad less grand than mock sea serpents, until you realize these bacteria flourish in conditions of heat-cold-chemical bouillabaisse once deemed uninhabitable). In comparison, the Syfy Channel looks duller than the Senate Chamber. Mongolian Death Worm? Puh-leese. Imagine greater.

You might be surprised, too, by how busy this assembling keeps me. In and out of the sea, biologists are discovering new species at the rate of about fifty a day. My folder has become very, very thick. Soon enough it will become a filing cabinet of very, very thick folders. Over ninety percent of the ocean deeps remain unknown to us. Oh the surprises that await.

I compile these clippings because they interest me greatly. I have spent my life around the ocean -- it's why I live near the ocean's edge here in Ventura County -- and like anyone else equivalently blessed, I have fallen under the spell of the sea. But I confess that I also continue to amass this collection of crinkled newspaper clippings and Yahoo News print-outs because they make me feel good. It makes me happy to know that there are still things beyond our reach or ken. If I might use a watery metaphor, regarding the oceans we remain small children ladling from the surface of a pond.

Let me dip my hand into the folder and scoop up a random sample. Observing veined octopuses in the wild, not long ago biologists in Indonesia watched as the creatures carried a halved coconut shell across the exposed muddy bottom. When the octopus stopped, it placed the shell over its head for protection. This is not a case of a hermit crab selecting a shell. This is an example of advance planning before crossing hostile territory. The biologists were astonished. Chimpanzees use tools, but not even chimps use natural materials to create shelters over their heads. (It is also worth noting that octopi can open childproof caps, something many humans can't manage.)

Even some of the sea creatures we know, we don't know. Hatched upon a seemingly nondescript strip of sand, sea turtle hatchlings plunge into the surf. Having never seen the ocean before, the hatchlings swim an unerring course, first through crashing surf and then across the seas themselves, more blank and featureless than anything terra firma can conjure. How do they know what to do? We are reduced to guessing. Scientists have learned that on entering the surf, the hatchlings orient themselves in the direction of the incoming waves. Beyond the surf, in the great Gobi expanse, they are apparently guided by an inborn sense of magnetic direction or, in the case of the leatherback turtle, a patch of pale skin near the eye may allow light to reach the pineal gland, which in turn may inform the turtle of changes in the length of the days, cueing migration. Whatever their means of navigation, science doesn't know where the turtles go. They swim for years, their travels largely an untracked mystery. "The lost years," science calls them. How poetic.

When the turtles are sexually mature, on a signal we do not know, they veer in the darkness. For generations, villagers on beaches in Costa Rica, Venezuela, and Suriname claimed the hatchlings returned to the beach of their birth. Science dismissed this primitive folklore. Now genetic evidence -- the examination of distinctive mitochondrial DNA -- suggests this is precisely what happens. How do the turtles find their way back to the beach of their birth? Science doesn't know. But find their way back they do.

This is why, as a 54-year-old ostensible adult, I have a favorite animal. How can you not thrill to the sea turtle's mystery? How can you not love when science is reprimanded by folklore, when Atlantis emerges from the deeps, impossible and true?

As for the oarfish, yes it is known to us. But I see this less as a scientific victory and more as a reminder.

Who knows what else the oceans hide?

The oarfish as sea serpent is only surmise.

Only the ancient mariners know for certain.

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