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A Big Fish Tale

by Trevor Ranges

Article Summary: This report by Bangkok expat, Trevor Ranges, investigates the origins of the famous Queen of Nagas photo that supposedly reveals a mythical Naga caught in the Mekong River near Nong Khai.

Andy Z. is a minor celebrity in Thailand. However, most people, Thai and farang alike, would probably not recognize his face; none would know his name. Nonetheless, many are familiar with a photograph in which he appears. The photo is on display in bars, restaurants, guesthouses, and markets around Thailand. It was even featured in last year's box-office hit, Mekhong Full Moon Party. Those who know of the photograph generally agree with the caption above it which reads: "Queen of Nagas seized by American Army at Mekhong River, Laos Military Base on June 27, 1973 with the length of 7.80 meters."

Many people would be shocked to know it is Andy in the photo. In fact many have denied that it is him: "The first time I saw the photograph in Thailand I was at Chatuchak Weekend Market," Andy explains. "I pointed at myself in the photo and said to the man who was selling copies of it, 'That's me', but he just shook his head, laughed, and said 'No, no, no.'"

It is not that he looks so different now than when the photo was taken that makes so many disbelieve his claim. It is because today he looks so much like he did on the day the photo was taken. In fact, Andy is now only 30 years old.

"No one would ever believe that it was me," Andy recalls. "'No. Impossible.' They kept saying 'The words say 1973.'"

In fact, the photo was taken on September 19, 1996 at the Naval Special Warfare Center, Coronado, California. "We were on our morning physical fitness run," Andy recalls, "when we came across this huge fish lying on the sand." At 23 feet in length and 4 feet in circumference, it was quite a shocking site for the Navy SEAL cadets. "We called it the AGE fish, because if you saw it underwater you would rocket to the surface, exploding your lungs, hence AGE (Arterial Gas Embolism)."

After carrying the enormous fish back to the Naval Amphibious Base the SEALs contacted scientist H.J. Walker from The University of California, San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Walker identified the fish as an oarfish (Regalecus glesne), a reclusive fish that inhabits the depths of warm tropical waters around the world. Encounters with this enormous fish are rare and not much is known of their habits. The oarfish normally stay down at extreme depths of 700ft or greater.

Walker surmised that this particular fish had wandered to the surface because it was sick or dying, and then perished as a result of a laceration from a boat propeller. Andy's recollection of the fish's condition confirms this hypothesis, and a quick examination of the original photograph supports this conclusion, as a large cleave is apparent just behind the head, and another long gash runs along the bottom of the fish for several feet. The Thai version of the photo has clearly been changed to mask these injuries. "In reality, the fish's head was about to come off, but all the photos in Thailand have been touched up," Andy explains, "especially the eyes." While the eye in the altered photo does appear unrealistic, the smudging to cover the cuts is deceptively effective.


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