From sea monsters, both real and imagined, to otherworldly phenomena below the surface, the ocean has long harbored frightening unknowns. Our relationship with the sea is complicated and often poses real hazards — to us and to the environment itself. As we delve deeper into the marine frontier, what mysteries and perils remain to be discovered?

On View October 4 – November 6, 2022

Dive into the ocean’s dark side this Halloween season. This special exhibit features an array of ocean-dwelling creatures, including the return of the museum’s popular tapertail ribbonfish specimen.


Submerge yourself into the mysteries of the deep through a month of special exhibits and events.

Nautical Nightmares

Early mariners that ventured further and further from their homes inevitably encountered creatures that were unfamiliar and strange. Tales of these creatures traveled, giving birth to the sea monsters of myth and legend.

The ocean is vast and so are the creatures that inhabit it. Many seafarers who encountered species like blue whales, manta rays, and basking sharks had no notion of their gentle natures and instead let their fear focus on size alone. 

Is it any wonder that tales of leviathans, krakens, sea serpents, and giant squid emphasize their deadly and powerful proportions?

Santa Cruz Sea Monsters

In 1925, a strange serpentine creature with a “duck beak” washed ashore at what is today Natural Bridges State Beach. Some speculated that it was a fossil plesiosaur that emerged from a melted glacier. Scientists from the California Academy of Sciences identified it as a Baird’s beaked whale (Berardius bairdii).

From ancient myth to these modern sightings, sea serpents persist in lore across numerous cultures. Many sea serpent stories, including local ones, likely came from sightings of oarfish or ribbonfish. These long, thin deep sea fish can breach the surface when they are sick or dying.

In 1938, Gus Canepa caught a strange fish off the Santa Cruz Wharf. The creature was first brought to the Museum of Natural History where it became a local celebrity. The original specimen ultimately went to be studied at the Smithsonian, who gifted this cast of the rare deep sea fish to the Museum. The specimen, a tapertail ribbonfish (Trachipterus fukuzakii), recently underwent conservation and is back on view in the Museum’s galleries.

Pernicious Pop Culture

Herman Melville’s 1851 Moby Dick brought to life the horrors of whaling, painting the sperm whale as a dangerous foe. While 20th century science debunked many old sea monster tales, modern media continues to perpetuate and sensationalize fear of ocean creatures. Do any examples come to mind?

Movies like Jaws instilled a fear of sharks in many people, when in reality only about 6 people per year die from shark attacks throughout the world. Shark attacks are quick to make the news, but most bites are exploratory — the shark  is determining  what is in its habitat (and if it is food).

Alien Worlds

Humans have only explored about 20% of the worlds’ oceans, and many of the most recent discoveries of deep sea creatures have come from the nearby Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. MBARI uses robotics and other technology to explore depths of the ocean that no human could survive. Just off our coast the Monterey Canyon descends 2.5 miles, almost as deep as the Grand Canyon. Researchers at MBARI, with labs located at the mouth of the canyon, began mapping the seafloor here in 1998, and are tracking changes in the canyon’s shape and ecology over time.

As you descend into the ocean, the light, oxygen and temperature diminish while pressure increases. Many deep sea animals have adaptations that allow them to thrive in these conditions.

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