June 13, 2013 -- Mark Benfield, a marine biologist at Louisiana State University, made a surprising discovery while surveying the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in 2011. While examining the area for environmental damage, a long rod came into view.
"We saw this bright vertical shiny thing," Benfield said in a statement. "I said 'are they lowering more riser?' as it looked like they were lowering a huge pipe."
That piece of piping turned out to be a creature rarely seen, let alone filmed: a long and slender oarfish.
Benfield's videos, released earlier this week, display many of the oarfish's defining characteristics. Its body, which is estimated to be between 16 to 22 feet long, is seen oriented vertically, head facing the surface of the water and tail pointing towards the sea floor. Protruding from the top of its head are several dorsal fin rays.
"It's very pronounced in the oarfish," Benfield told ABC News. "It's like a crest."
Along with its unusual look is its unusual swimming pattern. Unlike other long fish that flex their tail to get around, the oarfish instead uses its fins to propel itself. Benfield believes that its precise movement control might serve as inspiration for how unmanned robots could move and explore the sea.
The remotely operated vehicle (ROV) spotted more than just the oarfish in its video footage. One particularly large white spot along the oarfish's dorsal fin rays is actually a parasitic creature known as an isopod. This parasite, a relative of roly poly bugs, has been seen latched on to other sea critters. However, according to Benfield, it's never been seen with an oarfish until now.
As the leader of the GulfSERPENT project, Benfield says his mission is to explore the Gulf of Mexico and find "whatever wiggles, swims, drifts, and moves out there." The project is a collaboration between several oil and gas companies along with his laboratory at LSU.
The oil and gas companies lend ROVs to Benfield to be used for exploring the sea. The ROVs aren't a perfect tool for underwater wildlife expeditions, as they're bulky, loud, and brightly lit. However, according to Benfield, they work well enough. "Some of the animals are scared away, but a lot of animals aren't.," he said.
Benfield's findings were published earlier this week in the publication Journal of Fish Biology.