Scientists at the GulfSERPENT Project recently captured an oarfish on video near the Gulf of Mexico. Since the video was released, it has appeared on numerous websites and blogs calling it the “first-ever” video of a “sea serpent” and other glamorous names. While these titles may help to get the oarfish video more views, they don’t exactly paint an accurate picture of the video’s importance.
Since first being described in 1772, the oarfish (Regalecus glesne) has maintained somewhat of a celebrity persona in the marine biological world. With its elongated body and prominent dorsal fin, it frequently played the role of “sea monster” in ocean travelers’ folklore. In recent times it’s undergone more serious scientific study, but with one significant obstacle: The specimens available were almost always dead or dying oarfish which had washed ashore or entered shallow waters under stress.
“Oarfish are very much a mid-water to deep-water species,” explained Karla Heidelberg, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California’s Wrigley Marine Science Center. “They’re almost never seen in surface waters.”
The videos captured by GulfSERPENT are thus not significant because they are the first, nor because they capture footage of a sea monster (neither of these claims is accurate). Rather, they offer a unique and high quality glimpse at a creature which until very recently was only understood in its inanimate form.
Mark Benfield, a professor at Louisiana State University, is the leader of GulfSERPENT and was present when the footage of oarfish was taken. He explained that there were actually five videos of oarfish taken between 2008 and 2011, through use of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). The most popular video is the only one in high definition, and was captured in 2011 during research missions about the effects of oil spills. Once they spotted the fish, the team followed it for about ten minutes, Benfield said.
“We weren’t looking for oarfish,” Benfield explained. “This was just sheer luck. We happened to be in the right place at the right time and we were able to spend some time with this oarfish.”
That time paid off. From the footage, Benfield and his colleagues discovered an abundance of information about the creature: that it can be found at least 1,640 feet (500 meters) below the ocean’s surface, that it swims with a linear propeller, and that this particular specimen, seen in the video, had a friend along for the ride.
“It was good enough video to catch a parasitic isopod, or what most people probably know as ‘roly polys’ on the oarfish’s dorsal fin,” Benfield explained. (Learn about tongue-eating parasitic isopods.)
But beyond learning details about these few specific oarfish caught on camera, the ROV footage has implications for future underwater studies.
“The deep sea is home to so many organisms we seldom see, and the more chances we get to get out there with ROVs, the more we will learn,” Benfield said.
“People are fascinated by deep space missions, but there are plenty of captivating animals living under the sea.”