The largest ecosystem on the planet is also the most mysterious–the bathypelagic or “midnight zone“, that thick layer of seemingly monotonous dark water between the film of sunlit surface ocean above, where the alchemy of photosynthesis spins sunlight into the tiny algal cells that feed the rest of the ocean, and the cold dark desert of the deep-sea floor below.
The bathypelagic is a mystery because it is huge, sparsely populated, and largely inaccessible and so it is infrequently that we get to see the sometimes bizarre life forms that live there. Perhaps not surprisingly, these elusive creatures lend themselves to legend–the kraken, the giant squid, mermaids, and so on.
One of the most fascinating–and timely– such examples involves the strange, beautiful, and elusive Regalecus glesne, variously known as the oarfish on account of its long flat body, or more poetically, the “King of herrings”. The latter name presumably derives from its colossal size (it is the longest bony fish in the world at >15 m) and the “crown” of spines at the front end of its dorsal fin. This striking animal, whose harmless nature is belied by its large size and bizarre appearance, occasionally ascends from its netherworld home and flounders about near the surface, where it is believed to be the origin of many sea serpent stories.
The oarfish is also believed in some quarters to be a harbinger of earthquakes, particularly around the rim of the Pacific Ocean. Consider this report from the Telegraph published on 4 March 2010:
Japan is bracing itself after dozens of rare giant oarfish – traditionally the harbinger of a powerful earthquake – have been washed ashore or caught in fishermen’s nets. The appearance of the fish follows Saturday’s destructive 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile and the January 12 tremors in Haiti, which claimed an estimated 200,000 lives. A quake with a magnitude of 6.4 has also struck southern Taiwan. This rash of tectonic movements around the Pacific “Rim of Fire” is heightening concern that Japan – the most earthquake-prone country in the world – is next in line for a major earthquake. Those concerns have been stoked by the unexplained appearance of a fish that is known traditionally as the Messenger from the Sea God’s Palace. The giant oarfish can grow up to five metres in length and is usually to be found at depths of 1,000 metres and very rarely above 200 metres from the surface. Long and slender with a dorsal fin the length of its body, the oarfish resembles a snake.
In recent weeks, 10 specimens have been found either washed ashore or in fishing nets off Ishikawa Prefecture, half-a-dozen have been caught in nets off Toyama Prefecture and others have been reported in Kyoto, Shimane and Nagasaki prefectures, all on the northern coast.
According to traditional Japanese lore, the fish rise to the surface and beach themselves to warn of an impending earthquake – and there are scientific theories that bottom-dwelling fish may very well be susceptible to movements in seismic fault lines and act in uncharacteristic ways in advance of an earthquake – but experts here are placing more faith in their constant high-tech monitoring of the tectonic plates beneath the surface.
“In ancient times Japanese people believed that fish warned of coming earthquakes, particularly catfish,” Hiroshi Tajihi, deputy director of the Kobe Earthquake Centre, told the Daily Telegraph. “But these are just old superstitions and there is no scientific relationship between these sightings and an earthquake,” he said.
Check out this video of the seemingly supernatural animal at home, swimming gracefully in the deep sea. It’s easy to understand how Regal became part of its scientific name.