The silver-dollar-sized eye stared up from the sea bottom.
This first gave snorkeling science instructor Jasmine Santana the shock of her life. But then she realized there was 18 feet of fish attached to this eye, and that it was immobile, stretched out across the sand about 20 feet down.
Though the species is formidable-looking enough to have spooked ancient mariners, this specimen was dead on arrival. That's probably the only reason that Santana, who teaches science at California’s Catalina Island Marine Institute, saw it at all. The creature, which scientists know little about but is considered relatively harmless, more often frequents the deep ocean, diving 3,000 feet or more to the depths.
She caught sight of it as she swam in Toyon Bay, off Catalina Island. The first thing she saw was a “half-dollar sized eye staring at her from the sandy bottom,” the institute said in a press release. Shocked, she swam closer.
"I was thinking, 'What could this be?' It's so big! We usually don't have anything that long in our bay,” Santana told the New York Daily News, recounting her find. “We snorkel here almost daily, so it's crazy to find this.”
She approached cautiously, the institute’s statement said, then realized the animal was dead.
“The body of the fish was almost perfectly intact, and it appeared to have died naturally,” the institute’s statement said.
Santana tried to lift the head, she told the Daily News, but that was too heavy. So she swam to the other end and dragged it by the tail. Fellow institute instructors returning from a day trip sprinted over when they saw her “struggle to pull a large silvery animal into the shallows,” the institute said.
It took 15 people to pull the 18-foot-long, 400-pound body out of the water, the institute said. But this was merely a small version of the giant sea creature, which experts have voted most likely to have spawned sailors' tales of ocean-going serpents: It can reach lengths of up to 56 feet.
Tissue samples and footage of the find are now with Milton Love, a renowned expert on fish at the University of California at Santa Barbara, for confirmation on the species.
The institute called this “the find of a lifetime,” considering that the mysterious oarfish rarely is seen. Some video footage exists, but the creature is rare higher than the ocean depths.
It looks vastly different than the strange, horned marine animal that washed up on the shores of Spain in August.
That one was later determined to be a thresher shark.