NORTH END — They thought it was a flounder, maybe a crab, but the creature peering up from the water’s edge at a family walking along the beach was a striking-looking fish seldom seen so close to shore called the northern stargazer.
Cara Hotaling, 18, of Frederick, Md., noticed the fish first.
“There’s something under the sand,” she told her family, including her aunt, Ashley Starr, who lives in the North End of Virginia Beach. The family was visiting Starr over the Independence Day holiday weekend.
They inspected it.
“I thought it was a crab,”Hoteling said later. “A wave washed over it.”
More was revealed. It sure wasn’t a crab.
They saw quite a face.
“It kind of looks like Voldemort from Harry Potter,” Hotaling said.
If not classically beautiful, the stargazer has a face that is beautifully functional.
The fish is a burrower, digging into sand beneath the surface, generally in deeper waters of the bay, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Its eyes, at the top of its head, and wide mouth are all that is exposed. When something delicious enough swims near, it pounces, sucking in and capturing its meal.
“I’ve never seen one before,” said Ashley Starr, who said her husband, Todd Starr, had encountered the strange fish while fishing before.
Ashley Starr took photographs that went viral on social media, and led to media coverage such as this. They exposed the fish, then unaware that the creature potentially can deliver an electric shock, a defense mechanism.
Then the family put the fish further out into the water.
“No fish were harmed,” Starr said.
There are a few dozen species of stargazers around the world, according to emailed notes on the fish from Mary McCarthy, senior aquarist at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center.
“Our local northern stargazers are mostly found in the lower bay, and it is unusual to find them so close to the beach,” she wrote.
Being in very shallow water can limit hunting opportunities, she wrote, noting that the fish are usually found in open waters in depths up to 120 feet.
“One of our aquarists who was at the beach that day said the water was pretty rough,” her email continued. “I would guess the stargazer accidentally got pulled into shore, particularly if it was weakened or ill.”
To Ashley Starr, the encounter was part of what makes living here exciting. “It’s just a reminder that it’s ever-changing, and that’s what makes it beautiful to be here.”
► usually lives in deep waters at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay — much deeper than where this fish, which may have been pushed in by weather, was found
► may be found between New York and North Carolina
► can grow to 22 inches, but generally is between eight to 18 inches
► hunts by burrowing into sand up to its eyes and mouth, then waiting for something tasty, which it sucks into its mouth
► usually eats small crabs, crustaceans and little fish — not tourists
► the fish can give an electric charge, generally as a defense mechanism but also while consuming prey
Sources: Chesapeake Bay Program, FishBase.org, I.R. Schwab, Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center.
© 2016 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC. Photos used with permission.