Creatures from the deep are reaching the shores of San Diego. To most of us, it's the opening scene of a horror movie. But to Ben Frable, UC San Diego's rare fish curator, it's a "childhood dream come true."
Last week, a 13-inch Pacific footballfish -- a species of rare deep-sea anglerfish found across the Pacific Ocean -- was found washed ashore by a woman on a stroll at Swami's Beach in Encinitas. Lifeguards reported the finding to scientists, who got the "pretty much pristine" specimen into the hands of Frable and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography's expansive fish collection.
"I first found out about anglerfish from an educational video game on Windows ’95 back in elementary school, so it’s pretty exciting," said the Collection Manager of Marine Vertebrates at Scripps.
Photos: Another Creature From The Deep in San Diego — Rare Anglerfish Found on Encinitas Beach
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The pitch-black fish was a female Himantolophus sagamius, which you'd recognize from "Finding Nemo" as the cave monster with a mouth full of teeth and a bioluminescent projectile from its forehead. The footballfish has typically been encountered in the sea swimming between 1,000 to 4,000 feet beneath the surface.
The Pacific footballfish is the third deep-sea fish to wash ashore in San Diego County in the last month, meaning Frable -- an ichthyologist a.k.a. a fish expert -- has been getting a lot of calls from NBC 7 lately.
On Nov. 30, a deep-sea, cannibalistic lancetfish beached itself on the shores of La Jolla.
And a few weeks before that, another deep-sea Pacific footballfish -- this one in poor condition and pinkish in color because it had likely been washed out by the sun -- was discovered on Black's Beach. Unfortunately, that one didn't make it to Frable's collection. It likely washed back to shore or was eaten by other marine life.
Earlier this year, another Pacific footballfish was found at Newport Beach's Crystal Cove State Park. The specimen, which looks nearly identical to the one Frable most recently added to the Scripps' collection, was recently on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
You're probably asking yourself: "So, three of these sea creatures have washed ashore in Southern California in the last year? And, two in San Diego County in a month? It can't be that rare."
According to Frable, the occurrence definitely is.
“It is pretty amazing that we’ve had three just in the past year and in Southern California alone because before that, the last time it happened in California, at least that we were aware of, that somebody saw and brought to scientists was 20 years ago today.”
That specimen was discovered on the shores of Del Mar Dog Beach in Dec. 2001. It is one of three Pacific footballfish specimens in Frable's collection. (The third is a footballfish discovered on the beaches of Hawaii in the 70s.)
In all, there are only about 30 Pacific footballfish specimens in labs across the world. They've been found and collected by scientists in New Zealand, Japan, Russia, California, Hawaii, Ecuador and Chile, Frable said.
"This specific species of Pacific footballfish – there’s actually 22 different species of them around the world – this is the second-most commonly encountered, Frable said. "So you can see how rare they are. There’s 33 total [specimens of Pacific footballfish found] and they're the second-most common out of 22 species."
As for what is bringing the anglerfish ashore? Scientists don't have an answer.
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"Unfortunately, we don’t really know why. We have such little information and so few data points that we can’t really make a determination," Frable said. "I’m chatting with colleagues who study coastal oceanography, talking to other colleagues that work on anglerfishes and other fish, and were having a little chat trying to figure out, to come up with any ideas. But with these three data points, we can’t really draw any conclusions.”
Frable will preserve this deep-sea fish in a jar of alcohol and store it with about 2 million other fish specimens on compactor shelves in his large lab at Scripps, which "looks like a cross between a storage warehouse and a library." It will be used when scientists need to compare and research anglerfish.
With anglerfish, "there’s still just all these questions," Frable said. And I think that’s what makes it really fascinating especially to study these deeper water species that occur just out in the open ocean. There’s these basic things we don’t know about them – we don’t really know what they eat, we don’t know much about their reproduction systems."
In all, Frable has specimens from about 6,000 fish species that date back to the 1880s. And, he's always looking for more. He urges any beachgoers who come across a rare find to contact Scripps.
Frable said the first-ever description of an anglerfish by science was of a specimen of footballfish found by a beachgoers washed up on a Greenland beach in 1833. So you never know if you'll make the next big discovery.
To report a discovery to Scripps:
- Report it to lifeguards, who will notify Scripps
- Send an email to Scripps at ScrippsNews@ucsd.edu
- Contact Scripps via its social media platforms