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Seamonsters of Nantucket

A rare sighting of an oarfish on Nantucket

The rare giant oarfish with silvery body, red dorsal fin, and finrays. Photo courtesy of Michael Strazzula.
Photo courtesy of Michael Strazzula.
The undulating oarfish first seen on Madaket beach at sunset. Photo courtesy of Tyler Bradbury
Photo courtesy of Tyler Bradbury.

It’s not every day that you get an up close and personal encounter with a sea monster. This past Monday evening, that’s exactly what happened to Michael Strazzula. After the warm spring day, Mike and friends headed out to Madaket beach to view the sunset. As he peered out across the crashing waves to the west at about 7:30pm, something caught his eye.

“Just in the shore break, something was flapping around and sort of slithering,” explained Mike.  “I didn’t want to touch it because of the long, red things.”

What Mike saw was a rare oarfish (Regalecus glesne), the longest bony fish in the ocean. Also known as King of the Herrings, oarfish can grow up to 50 feet in length and have an elongate, ribbon-like body. The “red things” Mike mentioned are actually finrays which fish use as sensory appendages detecting movement. You can see them in the associated photos.

After taking several photos (accompanying this article), Mike and his friend nudged it back into the water where it swam away in the surf. When I asked about its locomotion, Mike explained, “It moved similar to an eel, but the dorsal fin was moving independently.” In fact, even when on the beach, the dorsal fin, which runs the length of an oarfish’s body, was independently undulating, explained Mike.  

What makes this encounter so remarkable is that oarfish, especially live ones, are as rare a sighting as a giant squid. Early encounters were thought to be sea serpents, as was described in 1860 when a 16ft. long individual washed up on the shores of Bermuda. Even though these pelagic fish occur worldwide in tropical and temperate waters, sightings are usually of dead and washed up individuals. Encounters with live oarfish are extremely rare. Navy divers in 2001 were the first to videotape a live oarfish. A 2014 video from Mexico is among a handful of digital evidence giving clues to oarfish locomotion and behavior. Oarfish have been observed keeping their body rigid while undulating their large dorsal fin and have been seen swimming vertically, a tactic thought to aid in searching for food. This is the first known Nantucket encounter with such a creature.

The Nantucket oarfish was about 6 ft. long based on the photo with the person. The silvery body is typical of their skin; they do not have scales. Oarfish are toothless feeding on small fish, shrimp and other invertebrates. They are not commercially viable though they have been reported as bycatch. Their meat is said to be gelatinous an unappetizing.  

The next big question about the Nantucket oarfish is why? Since oarfish typically live in waters up to 3,000 ft., a living specimen on the shore is either an accident or an indication that this individual may have been sick or dying. Mike Strazzulla mentioned that the waters were turbulent on Monday and that the currents and high tide may have been factors in the oarfish coming up on the beach. The full moon could also have been an influence.

This may have been the first orafish on Nantucket, it was by no means the first sea monster to come ashore!

While we hope this oarfish swims back to deeper water, there is a chance it could end up on the beach again if it is sick or dying. If you find an oarfish alive, please release it back to the water. If found dead, the Maria Mitchell Association asks you to call 508-228-9198 or bring it to the Maria Mitchell Association on 4 Vestal Street so that it can be studied and recorded.