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An afternoon snorkel off Catalina Island brought a local instructor face-to-face with the half-dollar-sized eyes of an 18-foot sea creature on Sunday.

An 18-foot oarfish was discovered off Toyon Bay on Catalina Island Sunday. (credit: Catalina Island Marine Institute)

Marine science instructor Jasmine Santana was shocked to confront the rare oarfish in the waters of the island’s Toyon Bay, about 2 miles from Avalon and 22 miles off the Port of Los Angeles.

It was the “discovery of a lifetime,” according to a news release issued by the Catalina Island Marine Institute, for which Santana is an instructor.

The snake-like fish was found late Sunday afternoon dead but nearly completely intact and appeared to have died from natural causes, according to the release.

“It took 15 or 20 of us to pick it up,” said Jeff Chace, a program director with CIMI, which runs a camp out of Toyon Bay that teaches children to snorkel, kayak and hike.

Instructors from CIMI were unloading gear from a trip to Santa Barbara Island when they spotted Santa pulling the oarfish ashore.

“The craziest thing we saw during our two day-journey at sea happened when we got home.  These islands never cease to amaze,” instructor Connor Gallagher said, according to the news release.

The oarfish, which can grow to more than 50 feet, is a deep-water pelagic fish — the longest bony fish in the world, Chace said. It’s very rare to see so close to shore, he said.

“It’s one of these rare weird things you see in Southern California,” Chace said.

The fish is believed to dive more than 3,000 feet, and in part because of the deepwater habits, little is known about them, Chace said.

Children at the camp and the self-professed “science nerd” employees were able to get a good look at the fish, which had been pulled up onto the beach at Toyon Bay, Chace said.

The oarfish’s head shown after it was brought ashore. (credit: CIMI)

Now CIMI is trying to figure out what to do with the silverly fish’s body. The program has been in touch with a  “fish guru” at UC Santa Barbara and with the Museum of Natural History in LA, Chace said.

“We can’t even really fit it into our freezer,” he said.

The scientists may decide to bury the carcass and let it decompose under the sand. In the end, they’d have an 18-foot long skeleton to show for their unexpected discovery.