A long slender snipe eel not typically seen off the Southern California coast washed up in San Clemente on Sunday, May 23, the second deep-water species found dead on local beaches in recent weeks.
The snipe eel is usually found in 1,000-foot to 13,000-foot depths and can grow up to 5-feet long, though this one was about half that size. Just a few weeks ago, a mysterious, deep-water anglerfish called a Pacific Football Fish, washed up just a few miles north at Crystal Cove.
On Sunday, it didn’t take long for Matt Glaze to realize the thin-bodied creature tumbling in the surfline at Linda Lane Beach wasn’t a usual species found locally.
“I looked over and saw seagulls picking at something,” he said.
Joined by friend James Kessler and their children, they moved closer to investigate, wondering at first if they were seeing a snake or an eel.
A former expedition and ocean guide in Micronesia, Glaze knew the eel was a long way from its usual home.
“I’ve seen some weird stuff, I’ve never seen that before,” he said.
Glaze draped it on the rocks, stretching it out to get a better look. Based on its coloration and large eyes, he figured it was a species that lived out in deep waters.
“This was an interesting find,” he said. “This kind of stuff happens, you just get lucky and find these gems once in a while.”
Luke Kessler, 13, said he didn’t know what to think of it, but marveled at its big eyes and odd-looking face.
Younger sister Anaiah, 7, had another opinion.
“It looked disgusting,” she said, squirming as Glaze pulled it from a plastic bag to show on the sand Monday, May 24, at the same location they found it a day earlier.
It didn’t take long for a crowd to form around them, the kids holding it and touching its slimy, slim body.
For Maria Kessler, who is originally from Kentucky, it was a learning lesson for her and the kids.
“It’s always interesting to me to see the different sea creatures. It kind of creeps me out a little bit,” she admitted. “It scared them all at first, they were all a little terrified. But we went home and pulled up articles, it was educational.”
Glaze decided to hold onto the eel, knowing someone would want to look at it further.
Jim Serpa, the retired head ranger for Doheny State Beach and an ocean-creature enthusiast, was more than happy to bring a jar filled with alcohol to find it a home. He hoped the San Clemente High School marine biology department would be interested.
“It’s completely in tact,” he said, marveling at the specimen. “This is pretty long.”
He pointed to next to the pectoral fin near the top of the long body.
“Here’s an interesting bit, it’s anus is right here,” he said, pointing right next to its head. “Bizarre.”
He noted the eel has a lateral line that runs down the entire length of the body that helps them hunt.
Marine biologist Julianne Steers with the Beach Ecology Coalition said the snipe eel and the anglerfish found a few weeks ago live at about the same depth range.
Though not a lot is known about them, she said one interesting fact is how they feed: with hook-like teeth arranged at a backward angle. When shrimp are scooped into their mouth, they get caught on the hook teeth while trying to escape, she said.
According to Oceana.org, the eels have more bones in the vertebral column – as many as 750 – than any other species.
“It is important to continue to study this and similar species, in order to determine population trends and learn more about the life history of species in the deep sea,” the website reads.
The snipe eel lives in oceans across the globe in the depths were there are cooler water temps, Steers said. More commonly seen along California are the Moray eel.
So what’s bringing these rarely seen creatures to the Orange County coast?
“I think it’s primarily just a coincidence of how the currents have been working off our coastline for the past month,” Steers said. “We’ve had some decent swells come through that seem to be lingering. Things that would normally settle the the sea floor, they get caught in the current and pushed on shore and we find them here.”
Source: Orange County Register