A recent string of oarfish have washed ashore in California. And by recent string I mean two. On October 18th, a pregnant 14-foot long female was found dead on an Oceanside, California beach. On October 13th, an 18-foot dead oarfish was found a by a snorkeler and drug ashore off Catalina Island.
This, ahem, pattern is causing people to ask, “Why are so many oarfish washing ashore?” In the words of @para_sight on Twitter, “Two is not a trend.” To put in a nerdier statistical way, like you would expect anything less from DSN, you can fit a regression line to two points and get a great fit, but it’s questionable since the degrees of freedom is ONE. To give you an example, my dog has taken a dump in a field of wildflowers twice this year. Should the public infer my dog only leaves fecal deposits near wildflowers?
Let’s take a step back. Regalecus glesne is the longest of the bony fishes. The longest confirmed specimen was 36.09 feet (11 meters) in length. A more common length is around 9.84 feet (3 meters). The Giant Oarfish is also typically a deep-sea fish found between 200-1000 meters and found in all of the major oceans. Giant Oarfish feed on krill, small fish, and squid. They spawn late in year and oarfish larvae can be easily found at the surface. The Giant Oarfish was described in 1772 and the scientific name refers to “belonging to a king” and the farm at Glesvær (not far from Norway’s second largest city of Bergen) where the type specimen was found.
Undoubtedly the length, odd appearance, and their deep habitat make them of great interest to the public and scientists alike. However, oarfish washing ashore is not exactly a rare event. On September 24, 2013 a “mysterious creature”, more than likely an oarfish, washed ashore in Spain. May 13, 2010 in Sweden. February 25, 2009 in England. January of 2012 in Florida. I’m going to stop here but let’s just say I could keep going for a while. There are literally hundreds of such cases.
So while two oarfish washing ashore (say that 10 times really fast) in California within a week of one another is interesting it doesn’t demand we search for a reason. But, the media is searching for an answer for this pattern. And in drudging around someone hit on what has to be the worst idea. In Japanese folklore, the oarfish is known as the Messenger from the Sea God’s Palace and appears on beaches to predict earthquakes. Of course anytime something washes ashore in California, someone want to tie it to earthquakes.
First, I cannot seem to find any references to the original sources of this myth. Hopefully someone in the comments below can provide a link to something other than the mass media hysteria.
Second, the evidence given for this phenomenon is the unusual numbers of oarfish that washed ashore in December 2009 to March 2010 off Japan. According to LiveScience, “Shortly before the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami [March 11, 2011] struck Japan, about 20 oarfish stranded themselves on beaches in the area.” The evidence of the oarfish washing ashore can be found in a piece in the Telegraph before the tsunami. But only a few were actually washed ashore. Most were caught in nets…not even close to the same thing.
Third, Pat Abott, a seismologist at San Diego State, also makes another great point,
“The science and study just isn’t there. There’s a big difference between suggesting something like that and proving it. What did an animal sense that maybe we didn’t that told them about a coming event?” In other words, there is no systematic study that exists that finds a link between oarfish strandings and earthquakes. None, zip, zilch, zero, nadda.
Fourth, what about all the sizable earthquakes and tsunamis that have occurred without any warning from our oarfish friends? 1/10 is really shit odds. Of course that is just major earthquakes. I guess they can’t be trusted for anything less than 8.0 magnitude. You suck oarfish.
Fifth, earthquakes happen all the time in California. Where in the hell were the oarfish in May during the 5.7 quake at Canyondam or the 4.8 quake at Isla Vista? I mean sure they are minor quakes and I don’t expect an oarfish to kill itself on a beach for me every time but surely an oarfish has the time to tweet at me? So basically oarfish are doing a crappy job of predicting California earthquakes.
Sixth, as put by HJ Walker, from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, “If there is a enormous giant earthquake beneath the sea, other fish would be affected – not just one or two oarfish.”
Seventh, there are better more plausible explanations. Disease, sudden environmental changes, currents, anything is more plausible than an earthquake. Kim, a highly trained physical oceanographer, makes a great case for abnormal currents. Giant squid strandings increased when there are rises in bottom temperature. Or as my friend, a trained ecologist (h/t to S.V.T), mentioned animals are distributed patchily across the planet. Basically, you don’t find a species everywhere and where you do find there is usually more than one. Where one oarfish is there are bound to be others nearby.