The real life ‘sea serpents’ behind the maritime legends

Oarfish are the world’s longest bony fish, capable of reaching well over 30 feet in length, and also the inspiration for many fantastic tales of sea serpents. But these ‘monsters’ are actually one of the most misunderstood creatures in our oceans.

serpent
A juvenile oarfish raises its head above the water. It is easy to see how they could have been mistaken for sea serpents

Whether it is hiding in the corners of old nautical maps or starring in the spectacular stories of over imaginative sailors, sea serpents are a creature deeply woven into the fabric of maritime history. But these gigantic serpentine monsters don’t really exist in our oceans, right? The answer is (almost) certainly no. However oarfish, the world’s longest bony fish, definitely do and when you see them up close you’ll realise that those stories of sea serpents may not have been as much of an exaggeration as you might initially think. Capable of growing to well over 30ft long with bright silver skin, blood red dorsal fins and enormous vacant eyes, it is easy to see how these mysterious fish could have inspired the monsters of old. But in reality oarfish are actually one of the most misunderstood and least dangerous giants you can find in the deep ocean.

Sea serpents

In 1734, a missionary named Hans Egede was sailing off the coast of Greenland when he saw a “most terrible creature” who he described as “longer than our whole ship” and capable of lifting its head “so high that it seemed to be higher than the crow’s nest on the mainmast”. Was he exaggerating? Almost certainly. But did he really see a large serpent-like creature in the water? Again, almost certainly. He was also by no means the last to do so. Throughout maritime history tall tales of gigantic sea serpents as big as ships are almost as common as peg-legged pirates. But if we look at a magazine sketch of such a monster from 1860 (see below) you soon realise that what they were actually seeing were in fact oarfish. To be fair to explorers like Hans Egede it is easy to see why you may think these elongated fish were sea serpents, regardless of how fantastical they later became in their stories. But in reality these monsters are actually one of the least terrifying sea creatures you could ever meet.

1860 sketch
The ‘Great Sea Serpent’ washed up in Bermuda in 1860 and was drawn in this sketch from Harper’s Weekly magazine

World’s longest fish

Despite inspiring a legendary sea creature known around the world, oarfish (Regalecus glesne) are actually one of the most elusive and misunderstood giants of the deep ocean. We know very little about them because they live in the mid-water column of temperate and tropical waters at around 1000m depth. What we do know is that they are the world’s longest bony fish with a record length of 35ft although people have on multiple occasion claimed to see individuals as long as 50ft. But despite their incredible size they are actually relatively light weight at around 600lbs, which isn’t that much when you are longer than a double decker bus. This is because their bodies are actually quite thin giving them a ribbon like appearance. That elongated ribbon is crowned with a red dorsal fin stretching the entire length of its body which unlike most fish is not covered in scales but instead silver skin. They also have very large eyes for fish which they use to navigate the dark depths they live in.

longest fish
An 18ft oarfish found dead at a reef in Catalina Island, California, in 2013, the record double this length (35ft)

Despite their ‘monsterous’ appearance oarfish actually pose no danger to humans, or any other animal, at all. That is because despite tales of sea serpents eating sailors alive these fish actually don’t have any teeth. Instead they are actually filter feeders eating all manner of micro-organisms that filter down to the deep ocean. They also seem to only come up towards the surface when they are extremely ill and about to die. So although various sailors throughout the ages have definitely seen oarfish chances are they were already dead or dying. It is also for this reason we know very little about their behaviours because the only specimens we have been able to properly study are dead ones. Although a Remote Underwater Vehicle (RUV) study in 2011 did reveal that rather than swimming horizontally like most fish, oarfish actually swim vertically up and down the water column to feed.

Bad omens?

As well as finding their place as monsters in maritime folklore oarfish are also regarded by many Pacific cultures to be harbingers of doom. This is because when they move into shallower waters and die in countries such as the Philippines and Japan it supposedly coincides with earthquakes and tsunamis. It is for this reason the Japanese have dubbed oarfish ‘messengers from the Sea God’s Palace’. Even today the appearance of these giants along beaches in the Philippines can spark fears of natural disasters across the country. However a 2019 study by a group of Japanese seismologists have in fact debunked this particular myth by showing that there is no clear correlation between the two. Regardless this sinister connection has only lead to further fear and misunderstanding of these fascinating creatures.

beached oarfish
This dead oarfish washed up on a beach in the Philippines in 2008 and sent a wave of panic across the region

Hidden in the deep

Whilst for most people around the world oarfish are considered monsters and symbols of destruction, for others they are just another example of how little we still know about our own oceans. With 99% of the habitable space on earth residing beneath the waves, almost all of which is in complete darkness, who knows what else is still waiting to be discovered. After all if sea serpents are real who is to say the kraken and other ‘monsters’ aren’t as well. Even those creatures we have discovered like the oarfish still hold secrets we haven’t properly unearthed. As we continue to explore the deep ocean we might start to discover the old sailor’s stories aren’t as far-fetched as we previously thought.


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