When a surfer recently discovered a bright-red, moon-shaped fish floundering in the surf off San Diego, Jon Schwartz arrived soon afterward with his camera and heaps of curiosity.
The surfer, Scott Williams, said the cherry-colored creature with silver specs and large round eyes "looked like it was from another planet," and that might as well have been the case.
It was an opah, familiar to most only as a fillet on a plate, a mysterious pelagic denizen about as out of its element as a fish could be. Schwartz snapped photos and began to call or email scientists.
None had heard of an opah coming ashore alive, or dead, on a Southern California beach. One of them, Phil Hastings of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, described the event as "unusual" but added that every now and then a deep-water fish does come ashore inexplicably.
Hastings cited sporadic strandings, over the decades, of the even more bizarre-looking oarfish, which have long, slender bodies adorned with crimson manes.
Schwartz, as an avid angler and an Oceanside teacher, knew this was beyond unusual. That's why he became obsessed with the story.
Hastings and Perry Hampton, a scientist at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, both theorized that the opah Williams discovered might have been hooked at the tuna grounds or suffered from an illness and simply became disoriented and swam toward shore.
Williams and his friends did not collect the specimen, and that's a shame because so little is known about the opah's life history. They're solitary swimmers, for the most part, capable of probing depths beyond 1,500 feet.
But they're sometimes found with tuna schools far at sea, so they're caught incidentally by recreational anglers and commercial fishermen. Only one or two each year are caught by San Diego-based long-range tuna boats.
Schwartz also contacted Donald Hawn, a Hawaii-based scientist for the National Marine Fisheries Service, who has performed opah tagging studies.
Hawn looked at Schwartz's photos and guessed that the opah was a female weighing about 110 pounds, or ideal size for the market, implying that Williams and his friends had discovered a fish worth an estimated $450 wholesale.
"That's the wildest part of the story -- they passed up a fish that would have cost them close to a grand to buy at the store, if purchased retail," said Schwartz, whose obsession led him to the nearest fish market, where opah fillets sold for $12 per pound.
On Tuesday "Bluewater Jon," as he is known, agreed to be interviewed by a local news station crew at the beach where the opah washed ashore.
At school he's "using the whole episode" to teach his students how to use the Internet to find experts and conduct research, and how to publish their work.
Schwartz, an avid fisherman and a published fishing author and photographer, first broke the news about the opah two weeks ago on his blog, and he's not ready to let the story go just yet.
-- Pete Thomas
Images courtesy of Jon Schwartz and subject to copyright protection