WOULD YOU LIKE TO PHOTOGRAPH WHALES IN THE SEA OF CORTEZ my wife asked me last year. I was enthusiastic, but a little uncertain in the geography department. Its in Mexico, south of California, she replied. Sunshine and a sea full of just about everything - I was convinced. Oceanus is run by Christopher Swann, www.oceanus.uk.com
On our first full day of the trip, we had already hit sensory overload. Our skipper, Swanny, appeared to have superhuman vision.
We spent early morning watching a blue whale, lunchtime with about 100 dolphins and now, in the late afternoon, a group of pilot whales seemed to be playing in the distance.
But as we approached, we noticed something else in the water. At first we thought it was some sort of fishermans debris, but then we realised that it was moving. Bright turquoise and coral pink flashed in the Mexican sun as the panga manoeuvred around until we could see more clearly.
A few feet under the water was a huge, powerful fish. Long fronds sprouted from its head. It was these that we had originally seen floating in the sea. Its skin was translucent but brightly coloured.
It darted about while the pilot whales seemed to chase and play with it. At one point it went right under the panga - and then we could see that it was amazingly long and narrow - almost like a huge eel.
The chase went on and on. It was clear that the fish was in difficulties, and would be more at home in much deeper water. Who knows what had brought it to the surface We could see that the number of fronds on its head was steadily dwindling but we couldnt tell whether the whales were seriously hunting it or just playing, in that way that seems so heartless to humans.
As the light began to fade, we had to leave the epic struggle, though it could only be a matter of time before the fish succumbed to the whales.
Thank goodness for digital photo-graphy! We began the task of finding out more about this strange fish. It wasnt in any of our books, and asking the locals just produced a shake of the head.
Back home, we continued with our task, though with nothing but a description and some photos, the Internet was of little use. But after a couple of days of searching through books, we found a description that fitted what we had seen. There was no photo, only an old line drawing. Armed with a name (Regalecus glesne), or oarfish, the Internet proved more forthcoming.
We learned that most sightings of oarfish have been of dead or dying specimens, because it normally lives in the depths of the ocean. Several websites hypothesised that it was the oarfish, with its strange shape, colours and antennae on its head, that had given rise to so many sea-serpent myths over the years.
The oarfish has its place in the Guinness Book of Records as the worlds longest bony fish. It grows to a staggering 11m and weighs 270kg. This sub-tropical species lives as deep as 1000m and is known to swim vertically - one was filmed in the Bahamas in 1996.
Our skipper liaised with icthyologists in La Paz, who confirmed that it was indeed an oarfish. They said that, of the limited number of sightings, a good proportion had been off La Paz.
They also said that we were among the very few people to have seen a live oarfish. We had hoped to see new things on our trip, but we never anticipated seeing something quite so rare!