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Queen of the Naga's or merely the King of Herrings? (the Don Sao photo debunked)

By John Roberts
10 January 2009 00:19:00

One thing about having fewer guests is that I have plenty of time for pointless hobbies, meaning I get to spend my downtime indulging my twin passions of ugly fish identification and naval history via the internet.

    So it was while flicking back issues of All Hands - the US Navy Magazine - that I came across a familiar looking photo, part of an infestation that had always perplexed me...
    ...anyone who has visited the Don Sao, the markets of Sob Ruak or the Golden Triangle - or, so I'm told, Nong Khai - will have seen a picture purporting to be taken on a secret US base in Laos in 1973, a picture of about 20 servicemen holding a long fish like thing; looking, to me, like the Chinese style dancing dragons one sees in parades and claiming to be the "Queen of the Nagas".

    Nagas, in this instance (as opposed person from Naga-land or just plain Indian cobra), being a dragon like fish snake thingy, one of which created the Mekong, concrete incarnations of whom guard every temple in Northern Thailand and the beasts whose breath or flatulence create the fireballs in the lower Mekong during the November full moon.

    I never had a problem with the existence of Nagas, or the existence of secret U.S. bases in Laos in 1973, my only problem with the photo is that one of them, the Queen (how do you sex a Naga?  Surely then it is a Nagi?) no less, would be daft enough to let herself get caught by foreigners.

    I was happy, therefore - unless this is all a big cover up and I've been duped - to see that the original photo was actually taken in Coronado, California in 1996 and is of a tropical deep water fish from the family Regalicedae - nothing to do with killing kings I surmise, but one particular member of the family glories under the common name, King of Herrings - the very sound of which makes me want to put on an eyepatch, wooden leg and say "aarrrrrr" (what can I say too much time, too little work).

Not easy to read from the photo, the full text reads:

"SEALS find serpent of the sea:  Look, on the beach!  It's a bird, it's a plane, it's... a fish?  Twenty-three feet long and more than four feet in circumference, this image from a 1950's horror film weighs in at 300 pounds.  And it's dead as a doornail.

The silvery serpent of the sea - an oarfish - was discovered last year by Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) Instructor Signalman 2nd Class (SEAL) Kevin Blake.  The oarfish has large, saucer-shaped eyes and a raised, red, elongated dorsal fin along the upper ridge of its spine.  At the time of the find, Blake was leading students on a beach run at the Naval Special Warfare Center, Coronado, Calif.  "It was unlike anything I had ever seen before," said Blake.  "It looked like some sort of prehistoric throwback."  Scripps Institution was notified of the find.

Although this specimen was dead, it was a rare find.  The University of California, San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has only been able to collect four specimens of the undersea giant.

Scripps' Senior Museum Scientist H.J. Walker came to the site and removed the creature's head and tail for anatomical study.  He speculated on the death of the fish, saying it probably met its maker after an encounter with the propeller of a boat.
(JR. Comm. - nothing to do with having a SEAL Basic Underwater Demolition Team in the area then!)

Walker dared the BUD/S trainees to sample their find, knowing well that oarfish, when cooked, tastes like paper.  He tried eating it himself when an oarfish was caught in some fishing nets of the Southern California coast a decade ago.

According to Walker, the oarfish is harmless, eating only small shrimp and living in depths of up to 700 feet in warm tropical water.  Oarfish average between 20 and 30 feet long when fully grown.

"Because of its look and size, this is a fish that gives rise to the sea serpent image."  Walker said.

Records have a 56-foot long serpent like creature found on a Scotland beach in 1808.  It's believed to have been an oarfish.

Story By JOSN John Carstens
photos by LT DeeDee Van Wormer."


fab Says
24 May 2010 03:14:00

Hello there, I've seen this picture in many guesthouses in Lao and I am wondering why and when this picture was attributed to a 1973 US base in Lao. Anyone know? Thanks

Kou Vang Says
3 April 2010 03:09:00

Why do I keep finding rumors online that the soldiers who sampled the oarfish "died"? Weird??? I was just wondering...

Michael Megeath Says
18 March 2009 06:47:00

I'm actually in this picture (last one on the left). It's always worth a few drinks in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia!

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