Blue Demons

Times Staff Writer

If you don't believe in sea monsters, consider yourself warned: They are among us.

Exhibit A lies in a freezer at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, soon to go on display as it appeared before being pulled from the ocean: a serpent-like denizen, 15 feet long and sinuous, with a hatchet-shaped head and a silver body adorned by a flowing crimson mane.

If that's not enough, evidence of larger and perhaps scarier beasts in our seas is under scrutiny at Santa Barbara's Museum of Natural History: a 10-foot slithery tentacle and two stout sucker-pocked arms that had previously belonged to a creature measuring perhaps 20 feet.

The recent capture of an oarfish in a Santa Catalina Island embayment, and the discovery by sport fishermen of giant squid appendages near Santa Cruz Island, have scientists excited. Both finds are rare specimens.

The oarfish, a deepwater species so named because of long, oar-shaped fins that dangle from its sides, startled swimmers when it appeared in Catalina's Big Fisherman's Cove on the morning of Aug. 16.

It was clearly in distress, moving lethargically and bumping into rocks. Harbormaster Doug Oudin, who donned snorkeling gear and swam with the fish before it eventually perished, described its coloring as "metallic silver with bright blue-brown spots and splotches, along with its amazing pinkish-red full-length dorsal fin."

Oudin added that the oarfish appeared to be blind, not surprising, considering that these animals, which have large saucer-shaped eyes, live at lightless depths of 1,500 to 3,000 feet.

Little else is known about these longest of bony fishes because so few have been found, but, like the giant squid, they're steeped in lore, believed responsible for spawning tales of sea serpents and dragons rising demonically to steal crewmen and sink tall ships.

Their modern discovery may date to 1808, when a 56-foot serpent-like creature washed ashore in Scotland. In 1901, a 22-foot oarfish drifted onto the sand in Newport Beach, becoming, according to one reference book, "the basis for many sea-serpent stories told by local bar patrons for more than a decade after its discovery."

Oarfish are not monsters, of course. They have tiny mouths and, moving through the blackness the way a snake slithers over land, they prey largely upon krill -- tiny crustaceans -- and sea jellies.

The encounter with a live specimen at Catalina was at least the second such incident. Ten years ago, swimmers near the Baja California city of La Paz snorkeled with an 18-foot oarfish briefly before it died. It then was delivered to the local university.

Christine Thacker, assistant curator of fishes at the L.A. County Natural History Museum, says the Catalina find is the facility's third oarfish, but by far the largest, freshest and most complete specimen.

DNA samples may help scientists learn who a specimen's relatives are, "whether it's a tuna, a salmon or a sea monster," Thacker joked.

Perhaps even more mysterious than the oarfish is the giant squid. With its spontaneous color fluctuations and wild mass of tentacles and arms, it may represent the perfect embodiment of the sea monster.

Ancient mariners referred to the giant squid as the kraken, a savage animal much larger than the squid and octopus they had grown accustomed to encountering.

A mollusk that may reach 70 feet in some parts of the world, the giant squid has been the fictional star of such books as Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and Peter Benchley's "Beast." A kraken is also featured in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest."

Verne's 1870 classic -- in which a submarine is engulfed by the tentacles of a giant octopus-like creature -- reportedly was inspired by an incident reported in 1861, involving the crew of a French ship that confronted a giant squid in the mid-Atlantic.

The captain ordered its capture, and cannons were fired and harpoons hurled, but all that could be recovered was what the crew believed to be part of the sea monster's tail.

The discovery Aug. 11 of giant squid appendages, floating near a seamount eight miles east of Santa Cruz Island, was less eventful than that of the oarfish, but no less exciting from a scientific standpoint.

Bennett Salvay, who had been fishing with his son Daniel and nephew Evan, were looking for floating kelp paddies that might be sheltering game fish when they spotted a glistening mass.

From a distance Evan, 14, said it looked like a giant squid, and that proved correct. Salvay, 49, a film and television composer from Tarzana, used a gaff to gather up the thick arms, then pulled the tentacle aboard.

All the while, Salvay said, there was the eerie sense that the rest of the creature might burst forth and give them a fright.

"It was obvious that it was dead, but it was also very fresh," Salvay said. "We had caught squid before, but they were 50-pounders, and this was different because its arms and tentacles were, like, 15 feet long, so we figured it had to be from a giant squid."

Scientists speculate that the squid was killed by either a sperm whale -- the natural enemy of giant squid -- or killer whales. Killer whales had been seen recently in the vicinity.

Eric Hochberg, a curator at the Santa Barbara museum, said this became only the fourth such specimen discovered in Southland waters.

Parts of a tentacle were caught in a sablefish trap at 3,000 feet near Cortes Bank offshore from San Diego in 1979; a tentacle piece was pulled from a trawl net at 1,800 feet north of that in 1989; and floating remnants were discovered off Dana Point in 2000.

Giant squid are not to be confused with jumbo, or Humboldt squid, which measure up to seven feet and have become fairly common visitors.

The giant squid that inhabit the North Pacific are believed to belong to the species Architeuthis japonica, which grow to 30 feet. No live specimen has ever been studied, though researchers near Japan last year photographed a 25-foot giant squid as it drifted in the blackness at 2,950 feet.

It is not known whether they're aggressive or docile -- Humboldt squid can be extremely aggressive, even cannibalistic -- or even what their primary diet may be. Sperm whales have been spotted with scarring, possibly caused by a giant squid's toothy tentacles.

"We're just glad to have it," Hochberg said. "What this one does for us is confirm, more than anything else, that giant squid really are here in this area."

Whether we like it or not.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Fish story

With its surreal, elongated body, misshapen head and red body-length dorsal fin, it's easy to see why the rarely seen oarfish is the object of sea-serpent tales.

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Oarfish facts

Other name: Ribbon fish

Scientific name: Regalecus glesne

Weight: 100 pounds or more

Depth range: Down to 3,000 feet

Habitat: All temperate or tropical oceans

Diet: Zooplankton, crustaceans

Predators: Oceanic white-tipped shark

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Sources: Wikipedia, seasky.org, tiscali.co.uk, Graphics reporting by Joel Greenberg

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