Notes on the oarfish stranding (Regalecus glesne) at Chintsa East (East London, SA)

Head section of a model of the oarfish, Regalecus glesne, on display at the East London Museum

On the 28th August 2019 a very unusual oarfish washed ashore at Chintsa East. It was reported to the museum by Geoff Philipps and was alive when first sighted and later died. Sheila Gill of Chintsa East (pictured below) responded quickly to a museum request to secure the specimen by saving it from being washed out by the tide.

Sheila Gill holds the 1.56 m oarfish which washed out at Chintsa East. Photo Kevin Cole ELM

The 1.56 m fish was identified by museum scientist Kevin Cole and is only a third record for the museum. These fish have a worldwide distribution and live in the open ocean of tropical and temperate seas. Most noticeable when alive is the brilliant silver colour of the head and body with crimson dorsal and pelvic fins. A good mount of the specimen can be seen in the Oceanic display in the marine gallery. The SA Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) was contacted and a tissue sample taken before the fish was frozen.

Specimens are normally washed ashore after stormy weather. They are rarely trawled by fishing boats. The ‘oars’ (elongate pelvic fins) are not used for locomotion through the water but act as ‘tastebuds’ (chemo-receptive organs) which may be useful in selecting prey species.

The flesh is not palatable, even when cooked, as it is watery and soft.

One of the behavioral traits of the fish is that it adopts a vertical position in the water column to spot its food (planktonic crustaceans) which are normally silhouetted against the light from the surface. The oarfish is a most likely source of sea serpent myths. They are also known in ancient Japanese fishermen tales to warn of pending tsunamis when sighted close to the surface or beached. They can grow to a length of 8 m and weigh well over a 100 kg’s.

The Oceanic display in the museum marine gallery has a model of an oarfish on display

Reference: Coastal fishes of southern Africa by Phil and Elaine Heemstra

About East London Museum Science

Conservation Biologist East London Museum South Africa
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