The discovery of an 18-foot oarfish off Catalina Island thrilled the staff at Catalina Island Marine Institute. Now they're wondering: What do you do with the carcass of a very rare 18-foot-long fish?
Jeff Chace, program director of the institute, said it took about 15 people on Sunday to lug the serpent-like "leviathan" onto shore after it was discovered dead in about 20 feet of water.
"It just amazed me," he said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime discovery."
Giant oarfish are the longest of the bony fish species — topping out at around 56 feet in length — but even at 18 feet, a carcass can be a challenge for scientists.
The marine institute is awaiting results of several samples sent to researchers, including at UC Santa Barbara, but in the meantime, staff members say they lack the capacity to store it.
Institute members are now mulling the fate of the dead fish. One option on the table is to bury it in 3 feet of sand, then let it decompose over a couple of months. After that, the skeleton of the fish would be mounted, and thus preserved.
CIMI instructor Jasmine Santana was snorkeling in the waters of Toyon Bay at Santa Catalina Island, about two dozen miles from the mainland, on Sunday when she stumbled upon the carcass after seeing a "half-dollar-sized eye staring at her from the sandy bottom," Chace said.
Santana was in 15 to 20 feet of water at the time, he added, and needed more than 15 helpers to drag the giant sea creature with eyes the size of half dollars to shore.
Chace said there were no marks on the oarfish, and it was unclear how it died.
Rick Feeney, ichthyology collections manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, said giant oarfish only "wash up occasionally" because they're typically in deep open ocean — they dive more than 3,000 feet deep.
When oarfish come closer to shore, Feeney said it may be a sign of distress. They could be starving, disoriented or landed in shallower water because of a storm.
"They're usually in the deep ocean, away from land," Feeney said. "Not a whole lot is known about them, because they are sort of secretive."
A 12-foot oarfish washed ashore in Malibu in 2010, but it was a much smaller — and thinner — variety with its silvery scales and a scarlet red dorsal fin.
In recent years, researchers have captured video of an oarfish swimming deep underwater in the Gulf of Mexico and spotted one swimming not far from the shore in Baja California. But not since a group of Navy SEALS found a 23-foot-long oarfish off Coronado in 1996 has such a large oarfish been reported.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.