Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Friday, 26 December 2014


The giant oarfish Regalecus glesne (© John Norris Wood)

The beautiful artwork by John Norris Wood that opens this present ShukerNature blog article is the very first illustration of the giant oarfish Regalecus glesne that I ever saw. It appeared in a 96-issue part-work publication from the late 1960s that in Britain was entitled Purnell's Encyclopedia of Animal Life (and Funk and Wagnall's Wildlife Encyclopedia in the States), and which my parents bought me each week as a child. Such was this image's impact upon me that even today, whenever I read about Regalecus, it is Wood's picture that always comes immediately to mind. Hence it would have been unthinkable for me to blog about this remarkable species – one that has long fascinated me – without heading my account with his truly iconic illustration, which portrays to such stunning effect the spectacular appearance of one of the world's most extraordinary, enigmatic, and famously elusive animals.

Engraving of a giant oarfish underwater, from The Royal Natural History (1896), edited by Dr Richard Lydekker

And the giant oarfish is indeed spectacular. What other fish can boast a silver-skinned, scaleless, laterally-compressed, ribbon-like body of illusively serpentiform appearance known to measure over 30 ft long (and with plausible if unconfirmed lengths of up to 50 ft also documented – see below); a blood-red erectile crest composed of the first few greatly-elongated rays of the dorsal fin and memorably compared to a Native American's head-dress by science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke; an equally erythristic but shorter-rayed remaining dorsal fin running the entire length of its body; a horse-like head with protrusible toothless jaws; and a pair of very long, oar-shaped pelvic fins that earn this singular species its most frequently-used common name?

Engraving of a beached giant oarfish, from A History of the Fishes of the British Islands (1862-1866)

The giant oarfish is the world's longest species of bony fish (Osteichthyes), but the question asked more than any other about this species is just how long is it? The most authoritative answer is as follows, quoted from Mark Carwardine's standard work on animal superlatives, published in 2007 by London's Natural History Museum and duly entitled Natural History Museum Animal Records, which is also the data source cited by Guinness World Records:

"A specimen seen swimming off Asbury Park, New Jersey, USA, by a team of scientists from the Sandy Hook Marine Laboratory on 18 July 1963, was estimated to measure 15 m (50 ft) in length. Although this is purely an estimate, it is noteworthy because it was seen by experienced observers who, at the time, were aboard the 26 m (85 ft) research vessel Challenger, which gave them a yard stick for measuring the fish's length. With regard to scientifically measured records, there are a number of oarfish exceeding 7 m (23 ft) in length; for example, in 1885, a specimen 7.6 m (25 ft) long, weighing 272 kg (600 lb), was caught by fishermen off Pemaquid Point, Maine, USA."

One of the scientists aboard Challenger when it had its close encounter with that mega-large giant oarfish in 1963 was Dr Lionel A. Walford from the Sandy Hook Marine Laboratory of the Bureau of Sports Fisheries and Wildlife. In a subsequent interview, Dr Walford evocatively recalled that it "resembled a transparent sea monster. It looked like so much jelly. I could see no bones, and no eyes or mouth. But there it was, undulating along, looking as if it were made of fluid glass".

Venus girdle, 1800s engraving (public domain)

Incidentally, when I first read the above account long ago, I initially assumed that the creature must have been an invertebrate. I specifically had in mind some undiscovered giant version of the Venus girdle Cesium veneris - a ribbon-like species of ctenophore (comb jelly) that is normally no more than 3 ft long.

However, once I read that its observers included experienced marine biologists who would surely known the difference between such a creature and the giant oarfish, and that the latter creature when observed swimming underwater does indeed shimmer with a silvery hue under certain viewing conditions and undulates too, it seemed more parsimonious to accept their identification of the mystery beast as a rarely-sighted but nonetheless fully-confirmed species (the giant oarfish Regalecus glesne) than a form that is presently entirely hypothetical  (a giant Venus girdle).

Opah and giant oarfish, from Field Book of Giant Fishes (© G.P. Putnam, NY, 1949)

A near-legendary yet globally-distributed inhabitant of tropical and temperate mesopelagic waters from 660 ft to 3300 ft in depth, the giant oarfish is a member of the taxonomic order Lampriformes (aka Lampridiformes), whose other members include the ribbonfishes, dealfishes, opahs or moonfishes, crestfishes and bandfishes, taper-tails, thread-tails, and velifers.

Together with the oarfishes, they are collectively known as lamprids and constitute some 20 species in seven families. Most lamprids possess long, ribbon-shaped (taeniform) bodies, the remainder (most notably the opahs) are rounded, deep-bodied (bathysome); all are laterally flattened, and most have bright red fins, and often a very lengthy dorsal fin.

Engraving of a North Pacific crestfish Lophotus capellei (also known as the unicorn fish for obvious reasons), from The Royal Natural History (1896), edited by Dr Richard Lydekker

The giant oarfish is the only member of its genus, Regalecus, and, with a single exception, is the only member of its entire taxonomic family, Regalecidae. That lone exception is the streamer fish Agrostichthys parkeri, a lesser-known species that is superficially similar in basic appearance to Regalecus but much shorter in length (no more than 10 ft long), and also possessing far fewer gill-rakers (8-10, as compared with 40-58 in the giant oarfish).

Interestingly, the streamer fish is apparently electrogenic, as people handling specimens of it sometimes claim to have experienced a very mild electric shock. However, no such effect has apparently been reported in relation to the giant oarfish (which in view of its much greater length is probably just as well!).

The streamer fish Agrostichthys parkeri – the second, lesser-known, smaller species of oarfish

The streamer fish was formally described and named in 1904, when it was housed with the giant oarfish in the genus Regalecus as R. parkeri, but in 1924 it was reassigned to a separate, newly-created genus, Agrostichthys, in which it remains to this day. This mysterious species is currently known only from seven specimens, all collected in southern oceans.

Moreover, due to its deep pelagic existence, the giant oarfish is also notably under-represented by physical specimens (despite its far bigger size), with most of those that have been documented consisting of specimens that have been beached after storms or found dying or dead in coastal shallows. Click here to see a short video containing a number of interesting photographs of recently-stranded giant oarfishes. (However, please note that this video's thumbnail image, which also appears just over halfway through the video (at 1:35 min), does NOT depict oarfishes. Whether by accident or design is unclear, but what it does depict is, to put it delicately, the very sizeable sexual organs of two whales!)

The 'Seaham sea serpent' – a dead 10-ft giant oarfish found washed up at Seaham, in County Durham, northern England, during 2009 (public domain)

Yet regardless of its evanescence, Regalecus has been known to science for a much greater time-span than Agrostichthys, having been officially described and named as long ago as the second half of the 18th Century, by the Norwegian biologist Peter Ascanius (1723-1803).

Intrigued to read this historic scientific account, I spent quite some time seeking it online, but finally succeeded in unearthing a copy of the description in question. Just a few lines long, it was published on page 5 in Part 2 of Ascanius's great work – Icones Rerum Naturalium, ou Figures Enluminées d'Histoire Naturelle du Nord, written primarily in French, but with species descriptions written in Latin. Part 2 was published in Copenhagen in 1772. And here it is:

Ascanius's description of the giant oarfish (click to enlarge for reading purposes)

Ascanius also included the following illustration of this dramatic species' type specimen:

The type specimen or holotype of the giant oarfish Regalecus glesne Ascanius 1772

As seen in his description, Ascanius formally named the giant oarfish Regalecus glesne, which is still accepted as its official binomial name, although during the years that have followed Ascanius's account, many other binomials have been applied to it, all of which are now deemed to be junior synonyms. Here is a full listing of them, as given in the giant oarfish's Wikipedia entry and crosschecked by me on various specialist ichthyological websites:

Table of binomial synonyms for the giant oarfish Regalecus glesne (Wikipedia) – click to enlarge

Incidentally, some researchers deem Regalecus russelii, named by the eminent French zoologist Baron Georges Cuvier in 1816, to be a valid second species, but most consider it to be conspecific with R. glesne. Ditto for Regalecus pacificus, named in 1878; and Regalecus kinoi, named in 1991.

For further details concerning the systematics of Regalecus, be sure to check out the following publication:

Tyson R. Roberts's major contribution to our knowledge of the giant oarfish

Regalecus signifies kinship to a king, and is derived from the giant oarfish's popular alternative name, 'king-of-the-herrings' (the name utilised as a common name for it by Ascanius in his description). That in turn is derived from a longstanding folk tradition that this gigantic species leads shoals of herrings to their spawning grounds.

A comparable folk-belief among the Macah people west of Canada's Strait of Juan de Fuca has earned a related fish, Trachipterus altivelis, a species of ribbonfish, the common name 'king-of-the-salmon'.

Trachypterus altivelis, the 'king-of-the-salmon' (public domain)

The giant oarfish's specific name, glesne, derives from the name of a farm at Glesvaer (aka Glesnaes), near to the major Norwegian city of Bergen, where this species' type specimen was found. As for the name 'oarfish', this originates from an early false assumption that this species swims by circular, rowing movements of its oar-shaped pelvic fins (scientists nowadays believe that these unusual fins are used for taste detection).

In reality, this elongate species' swimming movements are much more intriguing, and diverse, as it can swim holding its body horizontally and also holding it vertically. In horizontal mode, it moves by undulating its body-length dorsal fin while keeping its body straight (a mode of locomotion known as amiiform swimming - named after a primitive, unrelated North American freshwater fish called the bowfin Amia calva, whose own lengthy dorsal fin performs the same undulatory activity for swimming purposes).  In July 2008, while kayaking in Baja California, Mexico, on a trip organised by Un-Cruise Adventures, guests filmed two giant oarfishes exhibiting amiiform swimming in shallow water. The oarfishes were each around 15 ft long, and an excellent-quality video filmed of them by one of the guests can be viewed here.

Model of a giant oarfish suspended vertically in the Sant Hall of Oceans at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. (© Tim Evanson/Wikipedia)

As he exclusively documented in the June 1997 of the British magazine BBC Wildlife, during a recent dive off Nassau in the Bahamas Brian Skerry was fortunate enough not only to encounter a living giant oarfish at close range but also to photograph it – and he was amazed to observe it holding its long thin body not horizontally but totally upright and perfectly rigid, with its pelvic rays splayed out to its sides to yield a cruciform outline, while seemingly propelling itself entirely via movements of its dorsal fin. Until then, no-one had suspected that this serpentine species could orient itself and move through the water in a perpendicular fashion. Ichthyologists now believe that the giant oarfish specifically adopts this vertical or columnar stance when searching for prey. Click here to view a video obtained via ROV (remote-operated vehicle) by Serpent Project scientists in 2010 of a very big giant oarfish, measuring between 16 ft and 32 ft long, swimming underwater both horizontally and vertically in the Gulf of Mexico. It is the first film of this species swimming in its natural, mesopelagic zone habitat, rather than in shallow water.

Any self-respecting cryptozoological enthusiast will tell you that the giant oarfish is a popular mainstream explanation for sightings and reports of at least some alleged sea serpents – and after all, with its enormous length and extremely elongate form, this is surely little wonder. Although it is normally a mesopelagic species, existing at depths of around 600-3000 ft, occasionally a specimen will enter shallower, coastal waters, and a number of strandings have been reported down through the years. For instance, on 22 January 1860 (not 1880, as given in some accounts), a dying Regalecus measuring 16 ft 7 in long but less than 1 ft wide was discovered washed ashore at Hungary Bay on Bermuda's Hamilton Island by George Trimingham and a relative as they strolled along the beach there, and was duly labelled as a dead sea serpent by a Captain Hawtaigne in a letter published in The Zoologist (even though his description of it left no doubt whatsoever that it was a giant oarfish). Happily, the creature's true identity was swiftly confirmed when its carcase was examined thoroughly soon afterwards by Bermuda-based naturalist J. Matthew Jones.

Engraving of Bermuda's Hungary Bay giant oarfish, sketched by W.D. Munro for 3 March 1860 issue of Harper's Weekly (public domain)

Moreover, in a letter to The Times newspaper of London,  which was published by it on 15 June 1877, British zoologist Dr Andrew Smith voiced what remains today a popular consensus among the scientific community when he confidently asserted:

"I am, as a zoologist, fully convinced that very many of the reported appearances of sea-serpents are explicable on the supposition that giant tape-fish [i.e. giant oarfishes] – of the existence of which no reasonable doubt can be entertained – have been seen."

Consequently, it may come as something of a surprise to discover that Dr Bernard Heuvelmans, the Father of Cryptozoology himself, no less, was scathing about the idea of giant oarfishes being mistaken for sea serpents in his standard work In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents (1968). He pointed out that this species' very large, unique, bright-red crest would readily identify it for what it truly was – a giant oarfish, thereby unequivocally differentiating it from any serpentine cryptid.

Heuvelmans also claimed that the biggest specimen of giant oarfish ever accurately measured was only just over 21 ft in length. This may – or may not – be the specimen depicted in the following photograph (there is some controversy concerning this):

A giant oarfish on the beach at Newport, Orange County, California, in 1907 (public domain)

He discounted all reports of longer specimens as exaggerations, adding uncompromisingly: "It seems that the only reason why there has been an attempt to stretch the maximum size of the [giant] oarfish, is in order to explain the sea-serpent by an animal known to science".

These seem harsh criticisms. In fairness, however, I must point out that they were written before confirmed specimens exceeding 21 ft were discovered (except, that is, for the 25-ft Pemaquid Point individual of 1885, which, oddly, Heuvelmans does not mention at all in his book), and also before films of living oarfishes were obtained – films which show that the vivid red crest is actually nowhere near as conspicuous when the fish is swimming as Heuvelmans had apparently assumed it would be.

Moreover, if observers who are not familiar with this species should see a giant oarfish when it is swimming in horizontal, amiiform mode (as exemplified by the above-linked video filmed by the Un-Cruise Adventure tourist in 2008), or even if found stranded ashore (as with the Bermuda specimen), it is easy to understand why they might indeed be wondering if they had encountered a veritable sea serpent from the deep - possibly even a maned one, as the giant oarfish's long, low dorsal fin might well explain sightings of elongate sea serpents sporting manes.

First UK edition of In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents (© Dr Bernard Heuvelmans/Rupert Hart-Davis)

One type of sea monster that Heuvelmans did feel certain was linked directly to the giant oarfish, conversely, was a specific type of marine serpent dragon that featured in a famous story from classical Greek mythology.

During the Trojan War, Laocoön, a priest of Poseidon, voiced his suspicion that the wooden horse of Troy given by the Greeks was some sort of trick, not to be trusted, and begged for it to be destroyed. In response, the Greeks' divine supporter, the goddess Athena, sent two enormous limbless sea dragons with blood-red crests through the waters until they reached Laocoön, whereupon they emerged and killed him, as well as his two sons.

'Laocoön and His Sons' – marble statue, c.200 BC (public domain)

Heuvelmans's linking of these red-crested sea dragons with the giant oarfish seems reasonable, as the story may well have been inspired at least in part by a Mediterranean stranding of one or more giant oarfishes, whose striking appearance would no doubt have stayed long in the memories of those who witnessed them.

Nor are sea serpents and marine dragons the only legendary beasts that have been associated with the giant oarfish either. So too have Asia's ancient snake deities, the nagas, as I noted in my book Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013):

"Allegedly seized from the Mekong River by the American Army in Laos on 27 June 1973 during the Vietnam War, a supposed queen naga or nagini is depicted in a famous much-reproduced photograph that is often seen displayed as a curio in tourist bars, restaurants, markets, and guest-houses around Thailand. However, the creature in question is visibly recognisable as a dead [giant] oarfish, held up for display by a number of men.

"Moreover, it is now known that this oarfish specimen, measuring 25.5 ft long, was actually found not in Asia at all, but off the coast of Coronado Island, near San Diego, California, by some US Navy SEAL trainees in late 1996, and those are the men who are holding it."

The famous photograph of a supposed nagini, clearly a giant oarfish (public domain)

There are also two little-known Icelandic sea monsters that may have been inspired by reports of the giant oarfish, judging from their bright red dorsal crests. For although this species is not generally found in Arctic waters, it is known from Scandinavian coasts further south (its holotype being one notable example).

These monsters are the red-maned hrosshvalur or horse-whale and the aptly-named raudkembingur or red-crest. Both appeared on a set of Icelandic postage stamps depicting eight of this country's mythological monsters, issued on 19 March 2009 (click here for more details).

The red-maned hrosshvalur or horse-whale at top-left and the raudkembingur or red-crest at bottom-right, as portrayed on Icelandic postage stamps

Incidentally, although the giant oarfish was not formally recognised by science until Ascanius's description of it in 1772, the myth of Laocoön's destruction is not the only evidence that this mysterious, little-seen, yet instantly-recognisable species had been known long before then.

Direct confirmation of this comes from the fact that a preserved giant oarfish was present in the cabinet of curiosities displayed at Palazzo Gravina in Naples, Italy, by Ferrante Imperato, a 16th-Century Neapolitan apothecary. He referred to this specimen as Spada marina ('sea sword') in his Dell'Historia Naturale (1599) – which contains a plate depicting his cabinet of curiosities with the giant oarfish clearly visible upon one of the walls:

Ferrante Imperato's cabinet of curiosities, featuring a giant oarfish (arrowed in red) – click to enlarge (BIG image!)

I'll leave the final words on the giant oarfish to the late Arthur C. Clarke, one of whose characters in his classic sea monster-featuring science-fiction novel The Deep Range (1957) voiced the following, very fitting description and equally telling cryptozoological sentiment:

"...but the really spectacular one is the oarfish – Regalecus glesne. That's got a face like a horse, a crest of brilliant red quills like an Indian brave's headdress – and a snakelike body which may be seventy feet long. Since we know that these things exist, how do you expect us to be surprised at anything the sea can produce?"

Amen to that!

Beautiful colour engraving of a giant oarfish, with a close-up of its surprisingly equine head and protrusible toothless jaws

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