Giant oarfish have been washing up on the shores of the Philippines in unusually high numbers over the last few weeks, and they are apparently making appearances just before earthquakes strike the country.
For example, earlier this month, there was a powerful 6.5M quake that killed a handful of people in the archipelago, and some outlets are reporting that an oarfish emerged onshore just beforehand.
The world’s longest bony fish have a reputation for precognition in some cultures, and as such, some are interpreting their deathly visits to the beaches of the Philippines as warnings of imminent, earth-shattering events.
So is there any truth to this? Can these elongated swimmers predict future tectonic rumblings?
Giant oarfish were first discovered in 1772. They have a global distribution, in that they appear in every single ocean except in the particularly frigid polar regions. They tend to inhabit depths of around 300 to 900 meters (roughly 1,000 to 3,000 feet), and feed on krill.
All animals can detect the physical shaking of the water or land they are in or on if they are sensitive enough to pick up on the vibrations being emitted from the source of the quake. Humans are no exception, but animals with better senses of hearing or balance can pick up on them slightly faster than we can, and at lower frequencies.
Dogs, cats, and birds are sometimes known to react seconds before we humans feel an earthquake’s seismic waves rock the ground beneath our feet, but it’s important to emphasize the word “seconds”. They cannot predict quakes, they can just feel them slightly before us.
Giant oarfish are no exception to this. There’s also the added caveat that they cannot swim faster than the speed of sound through water, meaning that any quake felt by them in the depths of the ocean will make it to land – and us – far faster than oarfish can beach themselves and “warn” us that one’s coming.
So they aren’t predicting earthquakes, then, but are they possibly fleeing from smaller tremors instead?
Here’s the problem: The Philippines is actually one of the most seismically active places in the world, with earthquakes happening all the time. You cannot conclude that the recent tectonic fuss, which isn’t particularly unusual, is causing these giant oarfish to appear on land.
Besides, if giant oarfish were so good at predicting or detecting earthquakes, you would think that when any significant tremors occurred underwater, you’d see beachings all over the world, from California to Bangladesh – but you don’t.
It’s likely to be one of those magical things we call a “coincidence”. A change in local ocean currents probably got them a little bit lost along their deep-sea journeys.