The rare, ribbon-shaped sea creature was far from home when it washed ashore in Malibu this week.
Darrell Rae was on a Sunday morning stroll on Malibu Colony beach when he spotted the 12-foot-long silvery fish with a brilliant red mane and scarlet dorsal fin floundering in the water a few dozen feet from the shore.
"I grew up on the beaches and I had never seen or even heard of anything like it," the 40-year-old marketing manager said, "so I knew it had to be something that came from far away and deep in the ocean."
When Rae returned with his camera, the creature had washed ashore, dead. Half a dozen people were gawking at the long, thin leviathan, wondering if it might be some kind of eel.
But the first to correctly identify the serpentine creature was an 8-year-old boy who recognized it from school and strode up beside the adults to inform them: It's an oarfish.
"He knew exactly what it was," Rae said. "He spoke with conviction about this fish that none of the adults even had a clue about."
Biologists with the California Wildlife Center arrived and corroborated the boy's assessment: It was indeed an oarfish, a species rarely seen this far from the deep sea, where it is believed to reign as the longest bony fish in the ocean.
The storied sea creatures have washed up on California shores only a few times, most recently in 2006 on Catalina Island.
Oarfish are largely a mystery to scientists, but they are typically found 700 to 3,000 feet beneath the surface in tropical and temperate waters, where they feed on small squid and krill.
"The fact that it was close to shore at all is unusual," said Cynthia Reyes, director of the California Wildlife Center.
Sharks, rays and other distressed marine animals often wash up along the Malibu coastline, but never before has Reyes come across a creature as rare — or as far from its usual comfort zone — as an oarfish.
After taking tissue samples, the Malibu-based center offered the specimen to the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, which took custody of it Tuesday.
It is now being housed in a freezer as it awaits testing. Eventually, it will join three other oarfish and an oarfish larvae in the museum's collection.
Researchers said they are excited to have another example of a species that is renowned in sea lore but poorly understood scientifically.
Bearing a closer resemblance to the Loch Ness Monster than a perch or mackerel, the oarfish can grow to more than 30 feet in length and is credited with spawning many of the sea serpent legends told by sailors over the years.
"They're long and silvery and they undulate like a serpent would as they swim through the water," said H.J. Walker, a senior museum scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which has several oarfish in its collection.
Walker said they earned their name for the elongated pelvic fins that give them the appearance of "rowing" through the water.
Because the fish found Sunday is shorter in length than other discoveries, scientists believe it is a juvenile. But they are eager to learn what it last ate, how it died, and study why it might have come ashore.
"They need a lot of room to move around to function normally," said Rick Feeney, a collections manager for ichthyology at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. "So when they come close to shore they're in trouble and close to death."
One of the museum's existing specimens, a 14-foot oarfish recovered from Santa Catalina Island in 2006, is well-known to visitors. It is suspended in alcohol in a giant case in the grand foyer.
That oarfish came ashore under similar circumstances, swimming into Big Fisherman Cove, where researchers from the Wrigley Marine Science Center dove with the fish and photographed it before it perished.
Oarfish sightings have been documented as early as 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, stoking years of sea monster tales.
In recent years, researchers have captured video of an oarfish swimming deep underwater in the Gulf of Mexico and spotted one swimming near Baja California. In 1996 a group of Navy SEALS found a 23-foot-long oarfish off Coronado.