CATALINA ISLAND (CBSLA.com) — Could the appearance of rare “sea serpents” washing ashore beaches in Southern California portend disaster?
The question comes following the discovery of the carcass of a rare 18-foot-long oarfish off the coast of Catalina Island on Oct. 13, followed by another snakelike 14-foot-long oarfish found on Oct. 18 in Oceanside.
Fishermen in Japan reported a sharp uptick in oarfish sightings in March 2010 following the massive magnitude-8.8 earthquake in Chile that same month, which marked almost exactly one year before the country was devastated by its own magnitude-8.9 quake in northeast Japan.
Oarfish, which can grow to more than 50 feet in length, are considered the longest bony fish in the world. They typically dive more than 3,000 feet deep, which makes sightings rare and has fueled various serpent legends throughout history.
According to traditional Japanese lore, oarfish rise to the water’s surface and beach themselves to warn of an impending earthquake, a notion that some scientists have speculated could be supported by the bottom-dwelling fish being more sensitive to seismic shifts.
Known as the “Messenger from the Sea God’s Palace,” over a dozen “ryugu no tsukai,” or slender oarfish, either washed ashore or were caught in fishing nets in the Ishikawa, Toyama, Kyoto, Shimane and Nagasaki prefectures near the quake’s epicenter months before the 2011 quake hit, according to several reports.
Scientists, however, say there is no data to support an actual link between the two phenomena.
“It’s probably just a coincidence,” said Rick Feeney, who has been studying fish for almost 35 years for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
According to Feeney, four sightings have been reported since 2010 from the Central Coast southward, including in Malibu in 2010 and Lompoc in 2011.
“We think that they come inshore to die actually because they’re in distress for some reason, but we don’t know what the reason is,” said Feeney, adding that the fish could have been starving or disoriented.
But the fish remain somewhat of a mystery to researchers because there have been few Oarfish caught over the years, he said.
A record number of sea lion sightings were reported along Southland beaches earlier this year, including one declared “unusual mortality event” in April that saw hundreds of ailing sea lion pups washed ashore.