A walk on Black’s Beach, a day like hundreds of others, held a shocking surprise of one San Diego man last weekend.
Jay Beiler was out walking the strand beneath the Glider Port in Torrey Pines last Saturday. It was almost sunset, he said, sometime around 4:40 p.m., when he stumbled upon ... it.
“I have never seen anything quite like this before,” Beiler said. “You know, I go to the beach fairly often, so I’m familiar with the territory, but I’ve never seen an organism that looked quite as fearsome as this.”
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What was it?
“At first I thought it was a — like a jellyfish or something, and then I went and looked at it a little more carefully, and some other people were gathered around it too, and then I saw that it was this very unusual fish,” Beiler said.
What was so unusual about it?
“It’s the stuff of nightmares — mouth almost looked bloody!” Beiler said. "I’d say it was nearly a foot long."
Beiler snapped three photos of the beast and went on his way. It was only days later that he thought about sending the pics to NBC 7 San Diego. The photos show a mouthful of glistening knife-sharp looking teeth, a projectile flowing out of its forehead and plentiful spikes bristling from its sides. Not being fish scientists ourselves, we reached out to the scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
“This is one of the larger species of anglerfish, and it’s only been seen a few times here in California, but it’s found throughout the Pacific Ocean,” said Ben Frable, the collection manager of the marine vertebrate collection at Scripps.
Beiler’s find was a Pacific footballfish, a type of deep-sea anglerfish — once made famous in the animated movie "Finding Nemo" — with a bioluminescent light on top of its head that acts as a lure.
It’s tough to tell how big the fish is from the photographs that Beiler shot. Scripps has in its collection another specimen, which was found on Dog Beach in Del Mar in December 2001, said Frable, who Zoomed NBC 7 from his lab, surrounded by jars of specimens and other scientific detritus. That specimen appears to be about 18 inches in length, and a foot from top to bottom. The one found last week and the one found in 2001 were the only two ever found locally, as far as Frable knows.
Based on the images, some seaweed in the background and other clues, Frable thinks San Diego’s 2021 edition of Himantolophus sagamius is smaller, though it is a mature female fish. The ichthyologist said he can tell that because the females of the species have the lure and are much larger — up to 60 times bigger — than their male counterparts, which don’t have the gnarly teeth.
Fun fact: The male of the species may not ever eat during its adult lifetime — “they’re just there to reproduce,” according to Frable.
The footballfish has typically been encountered in the sea swimming between 1,000 to 4,000 feet beneath the sea.
“How you have something from that deep in the ocean … it washing up on the beach here in San Diego has partially to do with the underwater topography of the coastline here on the coast, all the way off of La Jolla here — this was obviously found on Black’s,” the bearded, bespectacled, be-flanneled Frable said. “Up the beach a bit, you have what are called submarine canyons, where water and sediments are running off and it can get really deep, really quickly very close to shore.”
Beiler’s find truly was a rare one, Frable said.
“The Pacific footballfish is known from 30 specimens that have ever been collected and brought to museums around the Pacific Ocean,” the Scripps scientist said. “They’ve been found in Japan, all the way down to New Zealand, all over, and a lot of times, they have been found washed up on beaches, so it’s not really quite sure what causes them to wash up.”
Frable planned to go see if he could locate the one on Black’s Beach, but there are many seagulls and crabs that likely beat him to the find.
“We’ll go give it a shot regardless, because, again, these are very, very rare, and very valuable to science because we get such a rare glimpse at these,” Frable said.
Besides sporting the terrifying teeth, the footballfish features spikes on its sides, too, another unusual sight. The warty-spikes are “kind of bony projections,” Frable said, that can potentially be used for defense.
“So if a deep-water shark or something comes along and tries to bite down on it,” Frable said, “they got all those spikes. Kind of like a pufferfish, you know? Not very appetizing when you get those spikes in the mouth. But they may have other purposes. We don’t really know. We don’t know much about the biology of these fishes, and that's one of the reasons we would like people to let us know when they find one on the beach so we can potentially learn a little bit more.”
So what should a casual beachgoer do if they encounter something out of its depth?
- Report it to lifeguards, who will notify Scripps
- Send an email to Scripps at ScrippsNews@ucsd.edu
- Contact Scripps via its social media platforms
Frable doesn’t recommend "taking something home with you,” though, adding that “there’s a lot of marine protected areas along the coast of California where collecting of any sort is prohibited."