It’s a truism that many of the fantastic monsters of folklore and mythology are based on real-life creatures. Case in point: The serpent-like oarfish that recently washed up on a southern California beach. Eighteen feet of glistening, slimy, slithering, snaky fish, the creature was hauled away for study by marine science instructor Jasmine Santana and fifteen helpers.
The oarfish is the longest bony fish alive, and can get up to – get this – 56 feet long. They’re solitary creatures that dwell at depths of over 3,000 feet below the surface where they feed on crustaceans and plankton. Usually the only time that they’re seen by human beings is when they’re sick, injured or dead. The oarfish claimed by Santana was no exception: Dissection revealed a mass of parasites. (Incidentally, I don’t know if you’ve seen “The Bay”, but if you have you might be cringing right now.)
Given its serpent-like build, relative obscurity and enormous size, it’s a likely candidate for the “sea serpent” and “sea monster” myths that began in the age of sail*. Of course, it isn’t the only possible source for these fishy stories, and one other possible inspiration may not have been encountered in the water at all. Rotting shark carcasses can look pretty weird – even dinosaur-like. Some people have mistaken the cartilaginous remains for dead plesiosars. Read this amazing analysis of one such case. Then there’s “real” monsters once thought to be fable, like the giant squid.
So far, science hasn’t uncovered any real sea serpents, and every “monster” that we do finally find exits legend and becomes a part of natural history. that’s not to say that there aren’t more mysteries to uncover (and maybe a “real” sea serpent or two – probably not, but who knows?) in the ocean’s depths. According to NOAA.GOV, we’ve only explored five percent of the ocean. Our eyes tend to look skyward in search of mysteries beyond our planet while an entire world remains undiscovered mere miles beyond our shores.
*What about the Loch Ness Monster? No dice: There aren’t any oarfish in the loch.