Shelter Masthead

Serpiente del Mar

18-Foot-Long Iridescent Silver Fish Found on Beach

From a conversation one afternoon with Baja Bert and Shipwreck Sean in their nomadic beach/arroyo art studio/home on the East Cape. This happened in 1986.

Serpiente del Mar

“I was camping in an arroyo and three kids ran up from the beach. ‘Bert , Bert, Bert, there’s a big fish on the beach!’”

‘Well, I’ve seen lots of big fish,’ I said.

‘No, no, this one’s as big as your truck!’

“We jumped into the dune buggy and there, lying on the beach in a pool of water was a fish shaped kinda like a dorado, but 18 feet long. It was silver with a blue stripe. It had a fin the entire length of its back, about 3 inches high and it was waving back and forth like a centipede’s feet.

“It had a huge eye, yellow with a black pupil about an inch and a half in diameter. It was flat and flush with its body, not bulging out. But the most fantastic thing was its mouth. It had these flexible lips, like the rubber on a diving mask and its mouth opened from 2 inches to 12 inches wide. Like the shutter on a camera. We found out its mouth worked like a giant sieve, opening up to scoop up shrimp.

“While we watched, it threw up a bunch of shrimp in a tide pool and the colors of the fish got very bright. They stayed that way for 10–15 minutes and then faded back to silver.

The most exotic thing were these feathers it had coming out of its head . . . .

“We tried to keep it alive, but we could see the marks of a net on its body. Later we found out there had been shrimp boats out that evening. It was obvious it wasn’t going to live.

“We decided to take it in to town and put it in a freezer. We rolled it up like a firehose, it was 18 feet long, remember. We drove around San José and couldn’t find a freezer big enough. We took it to the fish camps at Playita and Palmilla. The fishermen were blown away. They’d never seen anything like it. It was a magical special fish.

“Well, anyway, Ken took it home and by the next day it started going bad (it was in the back of a pickup truck in ice). And incredibly, to my horror, they threw it away.

“I took the pictures to the curator at the San Diego Museum in Balboa Park and he had never seen pictures of this creature before. He said one had been found at Morro Bay in the ’30s and that it was a deepwater prehistoric fish that probably came up from the depths to get some shrimp and got caught up in the shrimp nets and then wiggled out and ended up on the beach. It was called an oar fish, and fully grown specimens are 35 feet long (!) They think that in previous times, sailors would see these things and this led to the stories of sea serpents.

“It was a life-changing experience, a magical thing. How often do you see something like that?

“It would have been worth $10,000 frozen . . . .”