Waiting for the big one: giant oarfish start shock waves in LA

'Messenger from the sea god's palace' washed up more than 10 times in year before Japanese tsunami - now two have been found off California

Long, slender and snake-like, the giant oarfish is rarely found fewer than 200 metres from the surface of the ocean. Yet in the year leading up to the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, between 10 and 20 of the deep sea creatures washed up dead along the coast of Japan. Ancient Japanese fishermen's lore suggests the oarfish - known as the "messenger from the sea god's palace" - rises to the surface to warn of impending earthquakes.

Which is why people in Southern California are a little nervous at the news that, this month alone, at least two oarfish have been sighted on their beaches without any visible signs of injury or disease, leading to speculation that they were affected by some deep underwater disturbance.

Rachel Grant, a lecturer in animal biology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, said there might be some truth to the Japanese legend, and she has begun a study to test the idea. "It's theoretically possible because when an earthquake occurs there can be a build-up of pressure in the rocks which can lead to electrostatic charges that cause electrically-charged ions to be released into the water," Dr Grant said. "This can lead to the formation of hydrogen peroxide, which is a toxic compound. The charged ions can also oxidise organic matter which could either kill the fish or force them to leave the deep ocean and rise to the surface."

Another possibility is that prior to an earthquake there is a release of large quantities of carbon monoxide gas, which could also affect oarfish and other deep-sea creatures, Dr Grant said. "The geophysical processes behind these kinds of sighting can happen before an earthquake. I will be watching California closely over the next couple of weeks," she added.

A 4.3-metre oarfish was found on a beach near the city of Oceanside last Friday, while a 5.5-metre specimen was washed up on Santa Catalina Island a few days earlier. Tests on the fish failed to find any obvious reason for the stranding, though on the day following the second beaching, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake was recorded in the Gulf of California.

Californians frequently discuss the possibility of "The Big One", a devastating earthquake to match some of the state's historical seismic catastrophes. But local geologists and marine biologists remain unconvinced by the omen. Milton Love, a research biologist at the Marine Science Institute at UC Santa Barbara, said, "If the oarfish popped up an hour before an earthquakes, I could speculate that they were affected by a sound emitted before the quake, or by some toxic gases. But if the event happened a week or more before, I'm not so sure. If anyone can come up with theory for a congruent mechanism, I'd be willing to listen… [but] these animals strand themselves all over the world - even in places with no earthquakes, like Britain."

Dr Grant said she has built up a database of several hundred oarfish sightings over the past two and a half years, and will now see if there are links between the sightings and any earthquakes reported by the US Geological Survey within a 500 mile radius. Love said since records began there have been no more than 10 or 12 total strandings of oarfish in Southern California, though they have been known to beach themselves in pairs previously.

"We do know that there's not an earthquake after every oarfish sighting, but we are going to see if there is an increased probability of oarfish being seen prior to an earthquake," Dr Grant said. "It may be due to seismic activity or it may be due to other factors unconnected with earthquakes, such as infrasound caused by underwater activities, such as military submarines, or pollution."

The oarfish myth is one of several surrounding unusual animal behaviour or observations prior to earthquakes, which have been used anecdotally to predict impending disasters. Elephants were reportedly seen running for the hills of Thailand and Sri Lanka before the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, and in 1975 officials in Haicheng, China, ordered an evacuation based in part on peculiar animal behaviour. A 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck the city the following day.

However, Dr Grant has shown in earlier research that there was no link between reports of mass migrations of young frogs and earthquakes - a connection made in Chinese folklore.

CALIFORNIA EARTHQUAKE FACTS:

* The San Andreas Fault, where the Pacific and North American tectonic plates meet, runs right under San Francisco and for approximately 810 miles down the length of California.

* The 1906 San Francisco earthquake still ranks as one of the worst natural disasters in US history. The quake and the fires that followed killed around 3,000 people and destroyed more than 80 per cent of the city.

* The most devastating quake in recent memory was the 1994 Northridge earthquake near Los Angeles, which killed 72 and caused some $20bn (£12.4bn) in damage.

* A 2011 study by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics concluded that a massive, 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Southern California - not felt since 1850, but said by scientists to be overdue - would hit roughly 430,000 businesses and 4.5 million employees.

* A report released this month by the Los Angeles Times found that more than 1,000 buildings in the city would be at risk of collapse if a major earthquake struck.

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football Polish side was ejected from Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone