A giant oarfish, also known as the “king of herrings”, is an eight-metre long ribbon of silver, tapered at its tail and on its head wearing a permanently stunned face – as though moments ago it was a normal herring and then the world’s largest chef slapped it down on a bench top and rolled over it with a rolling pin.
“These are unpredictable fish,” research biologist Milton Love told the New York Times 10 years ago. But in Japan, oarfish are considered highly predictable: they predict the future. See an oarfish, the story goes, and an earthquake will follow. In the months before Japan’s 2011 earthquake, one of the most powerful ever recorded, 20 oarfish were found on beaches. They’re known as “messengers from the sea god’s palace”, or jinja hime, “shrine princesses”.
The sea god’s palace, Ryūgū-jō, has four sides, each of which faces one of the four seasons. The expression on the oarfish’s face, with one wide eye on each side, makes sense viewed like this, too – one side is seeing the past, and the other the future. Things don’t look good: looking east it sees plum and cherry blossoms, looking west it sees a maple tree making “fire in the branches”.
Because the oarfish has no scales, its silver body acts like a mirror: from far away, it disappears into the grey of the sea, a polished knife dropping to the floor. Oarfish swim vertically and awkwardly, moving up and down and side to side like a cursor. And yet they are hardly ever caught in nets. It would be easier to believe that they do not exist, that 16 buff US Navy sailors had not stood in a row, each one gripping part of the fish, and the tail and nose still stuck out on each side.
But you cannot unbelieve them, because another animal has proven that they are real – that they are not a mirror or a knife or a giant needle or a roll of tinfoil falling forever from its box, or the world’s longest chocolate bar wrapper turned inside-out, but an animal with bones – it is the world’s largest bony fish – and blood and a very, very small brain – what one French documentary translated as “a pea in the head”.
The animal that proved the existence, the evolution, the total weird truth of the oarfish is the cookie cutter shark, a “demonic cigar”.
Recently, divers filmed an oarfish that had several small scoops taken out of its body. The cookie cutter shark has a mouth like a miniature bear trap and weird, unsightly lips – lips that look like your mouth feels when its been in saltwater too long. It had bitten the oarfish, determined to taste the shine, to know if it was hallucinating – to taste, perhaps, its own reflection (a wish we must hope was not granted, for the shark’s sake).
In the French documentary, Roberto, a diver wearing a silver wetsuit, tries to collect samples from an oarfish that has come to investigate a buoy with a very long chain. As the diver uses a broom-like contraption to touch the fish’s skin, the subtitles tell us that Roberto relies upon the “curiosity of fish for man and for the buoy”.
Of course, the fish does not read, so it confuses homophones, and is stunned for the rest of its life that such a transformation has taken place. One side of the fish’s face sees a buoy/boy, the past, and on the other, the silver man he will become. The oarfish rolls its eyes downwards, and tries to see its own tail, to know its own end, to predict, at last, something about itself.
Helen Sullivan is a Guardian journalist. Her first book, a memoir called Freak of Nature, will be published in 2024