Oct. 15, 2013 at 5:58 PM ET
A snorkeler off the coast of California made an alarming discovery this weekend while paddling around Catalina Island, south of Los Angeles: a recently deceased 18-foot oarfish, one of the creatures thought to be the "sea serpents" of nautical legend.
Jasmine Santana, a science instructor for the Catalina Island Marine Institute, or CIMI, was on an ordinary excursion in Toyon Bay when she spotted the silvery creature lying on the sea bed just 15 feet under the waves.
After donning gloves and checking to make sure it was truly dead (with anything this size, it pays to be careful), she and some colleagues managed to bring it to the surface and drag it to shore.
At 18 feet in length, the oarfish was too big for her to lift alone, even underwater — and it took 15 people to handle it on land (CIMI says it could weigh as much as 300 pounds). Yet for an oarfish, the largest of all bony fish, 18 feet is pretty shrimpy; they can grow to over 50 feet, according to NOAA.
Still, any fish this big makes for a great story, and the find has been making its way around the Internet on news sites, Facebook and Twitter. Fear is the unifying theme: "This is my nightmare!" wrote one Twitter user. "This is the most terrifying animal you could ever come across while swimming in the ocean. EVER," wrote another. "Welp, we're never going in the water again," said a third.
Kent Woods, CIMI's marketing director, said the office is flooded with inquiries about the fish, how it got there, and where it came from.
Very little is known about oarfish, since they seem to spend most of their time hundreds of feet below the surface. They're rarely found dead or alive, but in 2011, an undersea rover from Louisiana State University captured the elusive creature in its home territory, around 360 feet down:
Their great size and rarity have contributed to the opinion that they may be one of the creatures described as sea monsters or serpents by early sailors, to whom these exotic deep-dwelling oceanic animals would have been novel and probably quite alarming. Other animals implicated in the legends are unfamiliar whales, frilled sharks, and giant squid.
As for Santana's find, which appears to have died naturally and washed into the bay, CIMI's experts are keeping the fish on ice while they figure out how to get the maximum scientific value out of it.
"We have a fairly well-known biologist we're trying to call out to do a dissection of the fish," Woods told NBC News in a phone interview, referring to Milton Love of the University of California at Santa Barbara. After that, it'll join the institute's already-impressive roster of skeletons.
"The plan is to bury the fish, and little critters will eat the meat but not the bones," continued Woods. The bones would then be excavated, cleaned and mounted for visitors to admire.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.