1/5/13

Giant Headless Mystery Fish Baffles Fishermen and Scientists

A bizarre decapitated sea creature was found floating off Hawaii’s Kona Coast.
Even with pictures and photos of the 7 foot long serpent-shaped body, fishing experts and marine biologists are thus far unable to identify the rare and unusual species.
Captain Dale Leverone was fishing aboard his Kona charter boat Sea Strike for giant “grander” blue marlin with his son and first mate Jack when something weird, long, and shiny near the surface caught Dale’s attention. Jack recalls, “I thought it was a car bumper, but then I remembered they don’t float!”
Jack's been fishing with his father since he was two and a half. The pair and their passenger stopped trolling lures for a moment to scoop up the strange animal. It appeared to be freshly killed and was still bleeding. If the head and tail were still attached, it would have been in perfect condition!
Captain Dale first thought it might be an oarfish. Jack and Dale took some photos of their strange fish on the boat and Jack immediately shared the pictures with some friends, including me (Jon Schwartz). As a fishing photographer (see my Big Fish Photo Website Bluewaterjon.com), fellow monster fish enthusiast, and frequent visitor to Kona, I’ve befriended the Leverones over the years. Within seconds of seeing the photos I contacted them, eager to learn more.

I could barely contain my excitement when Jack returned my message. I’d lucked out by reaching them while they still had the exceptional find on board. “Jack did you really just find that?” I asked incredulously.
Ya we just found it. It's still bleeding because a shark bit it's head off.”

Ok cool! Take a million pics from all angles and send them to me!” I replied.
The Leverones resumed trolling for massive marlin and took more pics of the curious beast from the briny depths. Since Jack and his dad were still in the middle of a fishing tournament, he didn’t have much time to talk, so we agreed to chat later that evening. I was thrilled with the notion that I might know someone who has seen an oarfish up close. Now that's a real celebrity!

Along with Opah, Oarfish are one of the oddest looking creatures in the sea, and I dream of one day swimming with one for some amazing underwater photo opportunities. Ironically, Leverone is one of the few people I know who has caught an Opah. Here he is with an opah catch that made big news in Kona in 2005.

In fact, two years ago Dale and I spent the better part of a day on the his boat the Sea Strike fishing and talking about oddities like opah and oarfish.

To confirm Dale's hunch that the headless creature was indeed an oarfish, I contacted noted Hawaii fishing expert and historian Jim Rizzuto. Jim has written for decades about remarkable catches in Hawaiian waters, as well as a host of highly regarded how-to and historical fishing books and articles. Dale and Jack thought it was an oarfish, and speculated that had its head bitten of by a shark at the surface. They figured that the shark was still nearby and was going to finish its meal, but they had spooked it with their boat when they scooped it up. Here is the photo of the part where the head was taken off, possibly by a predator.  Notice the fresh-looking wound.
They figured that the shark was still nearby and was going to finish its meal, but they had spooked it with their boat when they scooped it up. What did Jim think?

Jim told me, “Because it was headless, I assume it was attacked and killed by a predator and the body floated to the surface. It might have been hooked on a deep water line of some kind and then discarded by the fisherman who caught it, but that seems unlikely.”

Here is a picture of where the tail would have been on the mystery fish. Notice the cut angle is different than the angle of the laceration near the head.
Had it been attacked by a shark that disabled it first, and waited until it floated up and bled out before planning to gulp it down? Maybe Dale was right, a shark could have been lurking nearby and they interrupted his meal. Mealus Interruptus. Bummer for the shark!
Jim and I had the luxury of doing some research while the Leverones were still busy on the water, and Jim said he thought the absence of a red dorsal fin would mean it wasn’t an oarfish. Jim thought it might be a type of cutlass fish; possibly a Hawaiian ridge scabbardfish, but without the head, it was going to be hard to get a positive ID. They seem to be so rare that the only image I was able to find was this old-school drawing on Wikipedia:
Rizzuto told me that they were rare enough that he didn’t have “a specific remembrance of other sightings and I have no memory of having seen one in the market”. To me that’s significant because to my knowledge, nearly everyone in Hawaii contacts Jim when they catch anything big or unsual, and it’s been that way for many decades.

Next I consulted Owyn Snodgrass and James Wraith, fisheries biologists at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Both of them thought it might be a King of Salmon fish- something I’d never heard of before. I researched them (one's pictured below in fairly rotten shape) and they didn’t look similar to the ones I saw on Wikipedia.
Snodgrass said that he doubted it was a Hawaiian ridge scabbard fish as he noted the largest recorded specimen was only 70 cm- only a fraction of the size of the fish found by Dale and Jack.

For reference, here's a closeup of the Leverone's mystery fish's skin in another picture. Notice the apparent lack of scales.
I kept peppering everyone with questions. Why didn't the predator eat more of it? At what depth was it attacked? I began to realize that because these are deep water fish, people don’t know a lot about them- even many scientists and fishing experts.

I was able to find some fish that resembled the Leverone’s mystery fish on Wikipedia, which listed them as “Beltfish” or "Largehead Hairtail" (pictured here in a Tokyo fishmarket) but who knows if they are the same species. For the record I hear belt fish taste exactly like chicken.
While the Leverones were still on the boat they said that they planned on eating the fish. When I contacted them later Jack told me they had filleted the fish at the harbor and tossed the carcass so it was now impossible to get more photos of the body. I asked him for pictures of the meat while they were cooking it. Before they were able to take any pics of the fillets, the meat from the headless mystery fish turned into a gelatinous mess in the refrigerator and they decided to pass on eating it. Good idea!

Jack's description of the jelly-like flesh matched up with some information I found online when I was researching oarfish, so who knows? Snodgrass offered to submit the photos to people he knew at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in hopes of getting more answers on this fascinating find. Maybe we’ll get lucky and get some answers soon; if I get any more news, I’ll be sure to post it on this blog, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, do you like big fish photos?  I happen to be giving away a 16x20" signed, framed photo worth on my Facebook Page.
I photograph big fish like marlin, sailfish, tuna, dorado, and sharks from above and below the waterline for publications like Marlin Magazine, Bluewater Magazine, Saltwater Sportsman, Sport Fishing Magazine, and my work has been featured on Nat Geo TV, in Forbes Magazine, and Field and Stream.
For example, above is my latest cover of a sailfish being released in Nicaragua. On my Facebook Page I am running a free photo giveaway worth $400. Here's how you can win:

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Note to Webmasters: This article is copyright protected and cannot be used without Jon Schwartz’s written permission. You can contact him at his website www.bluewaterjon.com or through his Facebook page.

27 comments:

Tom said...

Thats cool. Looks like an oarfish

jade Adams said...

Looks like a giant ribbonfish

Anonymous said...

Looks like a ribbonfish. Had a to of them in Virginia this year.

Anonymous said...

I second that based on an obligatory Internet search.

Anonymous said...

I'm an ichthyologist and it definitely does NOT look like an oarfish (or any Lampriform fish for that matter). Looks like you got a headless cutlassfish (Family Trichiuridae). Hard to tell exactly which species, but several of them reach the size shown in your pictures. Might be Trichiurus lepturus?

Anonymous said...

It looks exactly like belt fish. In China it was one of the most common fish to eat before '80s. They are consumed less and more expensive now due to over fishing. If you are in US, you can find them in most Chinese grocery stores.

Anonymous said...

I think I've got your fish - it has been encountered in the Hawaii longline fishery before, it grows to over 8 ft, and can't see any discrepancies in the pics to shots of this one - it is the Razorback scabbardfish, Assurger anzac, a species of cutlassfish.

Anonymous said...

Its called a Cutlass fish here in Trinidad and Tobago. We have tons of them down here.

Anonymous said...

looked like an arowana in its body structure but no scales and the head looks pretty narrow

Anonymous said...

Silver Scabbard Fish

Guess you'll never Really know...

Friend For Life said...

Sure looks like the Haitail we have here in Eastern Australia. They certainly do grow to that size.

Friend For Life said...

It sure appears to be a hairtail of the type we get here in eastern Australia. Yes, they certainly and commonly do grow to that length.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I want to say that I've caught one of those fish but it wasn't nearly as big as yours. However, from what I remember was that whatever it was that we caught had no scales, has a really slick and very chrome looking skin, and almost looked like tape in the aspect that it didn't really have a belly. I was fishing off the coast of Cuba when we pulled a couple in. My buddy just said it was an eel and we left it at that. We made that assumption based off of the shape of the head. I couldn't find a image of anything like it on google so now I'm intrigued. Good luck figuring it out.

Anonymous said...

After reading all the comments, I searched on cutlass fish, belt fish, and haitail. I got the same pages every time. Are all those names for the same fish?

Anonymous said...

After reading all the comments, I searched on cutlass fish, belt fish, and haitail. I got the same pages every time. Are all those names for the same fish?

band photography said...

thanks for the pics.

Anonymous said...

Hi,
It surely is a Scabbardfish. It's not the black one, but the probabily a huge silver scabbardfish. In Portugal, especially in Madeira islands it is best served fried like fishfingers with lemon slices and tomatosaused rice.
I have been working at SeaExpert-Azores company on the deep-sea shark by-catch of the black scabbardfish fisheries near Lisbon.
best regards and congrats!
Sidónio Paes

marin said...

i think that this is Trahipterus trahypterus known as silwer sword fish. I have captured some but smaller this summer in Croatia

Anonymous said...

Related to the Ribbon Fish or Cutlass Fish. I used to catch them from my boat slip in Galveston, Tx, and they have a mouth full of menacing teeth, sometimes stealing half of a trout I had on a line.

Anonymous said...

It appears to be Trichiurus lepturus - the Atlantic Cutlassfish a/k/a the Ribbonfish. However, as this was caught off of Kona in the Pacific, it probably is not of the Atlantic variety. The guy that found this is pretty brave (or stupid) to try to eat the dead carcass of an unidentified fish he found floating by.

Anonymous said...

I must agree with the Razorback scabbard fish, without no visible discrepancies and common enough in size.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Razorback_scabbardfish

Anonymous said...

I must agree with the Razorback scabbard fish, without no visible discrepancies and common enough in size.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Razorback_scabbardfish

Anonymous said...

Definitely a Scabbard fish, but unusual for that size in the upper Pacific. Generally found in south Pacific.

Anonymous said...

Here is a pic of the razorback scabbard http://www.fpir.noaa.gov/Graphics/OBS/obs_other_fish/obs_razorback_scabbardfish/obs_razorback_scabbardfish1.jpg

This one has actually been caught around Hawaii, unlike many similar or smaller species people are mentioning.

Anonymous said...

Like the others said, It looks like a large ribbonfish.

Ski Twisted said...

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d5/Assurger_anzac.jpg

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Assurger_anzac.jpg

I tend to believe it is/was what is posted above in the links provided. I tended away from the razorback based on dorsal fin size, shape, and coloring. opinion based on side by side picture analysis mainly.

ksmith said...

its a Cutlass fish we have them here in South GA "SSI" they get really big and taste horrible.