The whales' tale

Thousands of people have switched on to an Indian website that claims to have predicted the Asian tsunami. But does the theory hold any water? Michael McCarthy finds out
Click to follow

On the internet, it is already a spreading legend: did the mass stranding and deaths of whales and dolphins on an Australian beach signal the advent of the earthquake that caused the Boxing Day tsunami? And did an Indian professor, as a result of the first event, warn of the second? You might think it's a pretty wacky idea. But it's got currency. Yet is it true? Now, that's a different, and rather more complicated, matter.

On the internet, it is already a spreading legend: did the mass stranding and deaths of whales and dolphins on an Australian beach signal the advent of the earthquake that caused the Boxing Day tsunami? And did an Indian professor, as a result of the first event, warn of the second? You might think it's a pretty wacky idea. But it's got currency. Yet is it true? Now, that's a different, and rather more complicated, matter.

What is true is that on December 4, three weeks before the earthquake off Indonesia, an Indian academic, Dr Arunachalam Kumar, Professor of Anatomy at Kasturba Medical College at Mangalore in Karnataka, posted a note about a recent whale-stranding in Tasmania, and its possible implications, on a "listserve", an e-mail distributor, hosted by Princeton University (nathistory-india@Princeton.edu).

Dr Kumar is a well-known figure in India. An amateur naturalist of some repute and a prolific author, he is a larger-than-life character who is frequently written up in the press. It would not be an insult to either man to say he is something like the Indian equivalent of David Bellamy.

"It is my observation, confirmed over the years, that mass suicides of whales and dolphins that occur sporadically all over the world, are in someway related to change and disturbances in the electromagnetic field coordinates and possible realignments of geotectonic plates thereof," he wrote the following.

"Tracking the data and plotting the locales of tremors and earthquakes, I am reasonably certain, that major earthquakes usually follow within a week or two of mass breaching of cetacians [sic]. I have noted with alarm, the last week report of such mass deaths of marine mammals in an Australian beachside. I will not be surprised if within a few days a massive quake hits some part of the globe. The inter-relationship between the unusual 'death-wish' of pods of whales and its inevitable aftermath, the earthquake, may need a further impassioned and unbiased looking into."

There's no doubt that he posted his note on 4 December; if you want to read it in chronological order in the listserve itself, then you can go to it at new-lists.princeton.edu/listserv/nathistory-india.html and click on "December 2004". And there's no doubt either that, in reading it, many people are likely to experience a certain rising of the hair on the back of the neck.

But the story hasn't remained there. It has been widely reported across India and across the net. And, in the telling, the story has grown; on 10 January, it surfaced on the discussion board of the electronic version of the British Medical Journal. There, in response to an earlier BMJ article on "Medical Emergency Alerts in Natural Disasters", a letter from one Jairaj Kumar Chinthamani, a research fellow in Mangalore, said the professor had predicted the earthquake "almost to the day." He actually said "within a week or two" and "within a few days." The quake took place three weeks later.

Chinthamani said that the professor "wrote that he had made a five-year record of dates and locales of whale strandings, plotted their locales, and correlated them to occurrences of upheavals on land or undersea, and had observed a remarkable connection between the events." Professor Kumar never mentioned anything as precise as a five-year record; in fact, he never mentioned five years at all.

Chinthamani continued: "The larger the pod of mammals that breach, the more certain and powerful the quake will be, Dr Kumar adds." He doesn't. But never mind. It would not be surprising if the legend continued to grow until eventually Professor Kumar was regarded as having signalled the breaching on shore of the tsunami itself to the very minute.

It remains the case, though, that his original message is intriguing enough. Yet does it have any substance? The answer is that it may have some. Scientists are aware of the possible connection between the behaviour of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and the Earth's magnetic field. "There is thought to be a correlation between some whale strandings and geomagnetic anomalies," says Dr Simon Northridge, of the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews University, Britain's principal whale and dolphin research centre. "It's certainly out there as a hypothesis."

In fact, the idea was put forward in a series of papers in the late 1980s by Margaret Klinowska, from the University of Cambridge. Dr Klinowska argued that whales navigated partly by following geomagnetic contours, and that in certain circumstance, such as when the contours ran at right-angles to the coastline (that is, into it rather than parallel to it) they could run themselves aground.

The theory is still discussed, and it is a respectable one. But could it be taken a step further. Are stranded whales precursors of earthquakes? You won't find a lot of backing for that.

Mark Simmonds is the Director of Science at Britain's Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. He has studied strandings in detail because one of the questions most frequently asked of him and the WDCS is why they happen. The main answer is, he says, that most whales are intensely social animals, and act together: if one heads into the beach, the others follow. It may be an accident; sometimes human agency may be partly to blame; sometimes the Earth's magnetic field may play a role. "But nobody has shown any correlation between whale strandings and earthquakes," he says. "If you're saying there is, you would have to present the data to prove your case."

Over to Professor Kumar. His original e-mail strongly implies that he is in possession of just such data. But, reached by phone at his office in Mangalore, he was unable to provide any.

Did he have a list of the correlations between previous whale strandings and earthquakes? The correlations in which he had tracked the data and plotted the locales? "I don't have a lot of these things," he said. "I'm just an avid reader. I watch with particular interest."

Did he have any correlations at all, I wondered. "As a science man, I don't want to put these things on paper" he replied. "It would take me a long time to put it right."

No correlations were forthcoming, anyway. So Professor Kumar appears to have no evidence at all for backing up his core assertion that cetacean strandings and earthquakes are linked. Yet he undoubtedly did post his solemn warning of a huge event, just three weeks before the biggest earthquake of the last 40 years: "I will not be surprised if within a few days a massive quake hits some part of the globe."

Chance? Luck? Science? Spooky prophecy? Make of it what you will. Plenty of other people already are.

Comments