Sea serpent legend dates back all the way to Norse mythology with tales of Midgarðsormr, a beast so long that sailors would mistake its great back for a chain of islands. Their allure allows them to feature also in the Bible, where they are simply referred to as “the leviathan,” and Job 41 warns “if you lay a hand on it, you will remember the struggle and never do it again!” They also com up in Homer’s Odyssey when Odysseus must navigate between a deadly whirlpool, charybdis, and scylla, a fearsome female sea monster with six heads. One becomes nervous when so many similar legends crop up independently of one another, so much so that one may begin to question whether they are legends at all, especially when sea serpents are still reported today.
In an 1860’s article, Matthew Jones esq. speaks of a creature captured at Bermuda’s own Hungary Bay. Unsure of its origins, Jones announces it as “not undeserving of being styled a member of the sea serpent family.” This specimen would later be revealed to be the impressive giant oarfish (Regalecus glesne), a deep sea fish thought to be the origin of many sea serpent tales, possibly due to its habit of surfacing when close to death.
It is not surprising that such a strange fish is enshrouded by legend. Being a sailor before the invention of the internet, and thus before knowledge of such animals was made easily accessible, meant that they had to come up with some explanation by themselves for the oarfish’s strange appearance and behaviour. The giant oarfish is the longest bony fish alive and can reach up to 36 feet in length. The oarfish is seldom seen because they are pelagic fish and normally live between 66ft and 3,300 feet deep in the ocean, but are thought to be quite common.
After watching this video footage of the oarfish it is easy to see why people first panicked at their discovery. They linger at the surface of the ocean when in distress or dying, and have washed up on beaches in the past. The oarfish of Hungary Bay was likely a washed up carcass which people had never seen before, and desperately wanted to explain.
The oarfish has a vividly coloured dorsal fin along its entire length, and oar-shaped pelvic fins which it uses to “row” along in the water and from where it gets its name. The oarfish is thought to be oceanodromus, following its food source of small crustaceans like krill, as well as squid and small fish. The first footage of the oarfish in its natural habitat showed the fish in the mesopelagic layer of the ocean, swimming vertically.
The legend surrounding the oarfish emphasizes humanity’s insatiable curiosity brilliantly. The fish is intriguing and certainly inspires awe with its ribbon-like body and crownlike appendages which, alongside the belief by fishermen that it lead schools of herring, earned it a nickname; kind of herrings. Perhaps there is an aura of power around this mesmerizing fish, and humans have transformed the fear of its perceived power and their own fear of the unknown to elevate the fish to the level of a monster.
Modern science proves that knowledge is all that’s needed to dispel the myth of the oarfish’s monstrosity, but knowing about its taxonomy and appearance does not subtract from its majesty; quite the opposite. Those who would construct myths about the oarfish can now reveal its true mystique by inquiry into its behaviour as we still know little about the specifics of an oarfish’s life. What does it do besides eat as it levitates, suspended silently in the complete blackness of the deep ocean? For that matter, what other strange things will we discover upon further investigation of this wasteland we know less about than the moon?
What kinds of things do not surface?