How Giant Oarfish Work

By: Kate Kershner

Giant Oarfish in the News ... and in Myth

Scientists dissect a giant oarfish in the necropsy suite of NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center. It's easy to make out the animal's crest in the foreground of this photo.
Scientists dissect a giant oarfish in the necropsy suite of NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center. It's easy to make out the animal's crest in the foreground of this photo.
Image courtesy NOAA

As you can imagine, fish that resemble 600-pound sea serpents have a bit of backstory (true and untrue) surrounding them. For instance, it's pretty rare for a giant oarfish to wash up, although it might not seem so with all the attendant cell phone photos and social media coverage. Even the two October 2013 California discoveries probably weren't coincidence: The same heavy storm likely caused a surge that caught both of the oarfish and carried them to turbulent waters. These big creatures aren't terribly adept swimmers, so they probably took a beating. Once they're closer to shore, it's easier for them to wind up on the beach [source: Schaefer].

But some claim that giant oarfish have a much more mysterious motivation for beaching. There's a Japanese legend that oarfish can predict earthquakes, and there are several (anecdotal) instances wherein beached oarfish coincide with seismic activity [source: Connor]. There are a few theories about how this would work. For instance, perhaps a release of carbon monoxide gas before an earthquake causes a mass exodus from deeper parts of the sea. On a similar note, hydrogen peroxide could be produced if deep-sea rocks have built up enough pressure to release a massive amount of ions in the water before a quake. Sea animals would have to surface more or move to shore, as we see the oarfish doing [source: Connor]. Of course, neither of these theories have ever been proven (or even studied), and scientists point out that it wouldn't just be oarfish that would feel these effects [source: BBC Radio].


But there's an even bigger issue with this myth -- it's not even about the giant oarfish [source: Yamamoto]. Nope, this legend has to do with the slightly smaller slender oarfish (Regalecus russelii), which the Japanese call ryuguno tsukai, or "Messenger from the Sea God's Palace." (Which puts the designation 'oarfish' to shame.) But don't relax too much -- is it a coincidence these smaller oarfish were washing up on Japan's shore a mere year before the big 2011 earthquake [source: Yamamoto]? Well, probably.

Author's Note: How Giant Oarfish Work

As someone who lives on the coast, I consider myself fairly jaded about sea creatures washing up to shore. Mola? Yawn. Squid? Just another day. But there's something about the giant oarfish -- perhaps its unreasonably large size, tempered by its nearly troutlike face -- that really must give one pause. I think I'd like my monsters to stay in the sea, thank you.

Related Articles


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