Another oarfish washes up in the Philippines

Photo by Elesa Rosé Jane Allocod/Facebook

By Sarah Keartes/ – As residents in the Philippines recover from a recent powerful geological shakeup, some are turning to the sea for warning signs of what’s to come. A ten-foot (3.04m) oarfish was found in Carmen in the province of Agusan Del Norte days before the quake, and less than a week later, another specimen was found by local fishermen. Could it be that these ‘sea serpents’ are seismic harbingers?

Oarfishes (typically in the genus Regalecus) tend to stick to deep water – up to 1,640 feet (500 metres) down – so it’s no surprise that each beaching event draws so much attention. Their strange appearance, from streamlined bodies to spiny fins, has also made them the perfect characters for lore and myth: in Japan, for example, the animals are known as “messengers from the sea god’s palace”, and they’ve long been considered a bad earthquake omen.

So do these recent strandings corroborate such traditional beliefs? There could be some scientific basis here, but it’s also important to note that we don’t know much about the lives and ecology of these enigmatic creatures.

In an interview with the Japan Times, seismologist Kiyoshi Wadatsumi notes that deep-sea fish “are more sensitive to the movements of active faults than those near the surface of the sea” – so it’s possible that oarfish and their deep-dwelling kin respond to tremors by heading top-side, where they eventually strand in shallow water.

But there are alternative explanations as well. Some speculate that the relationship between oarfish and earthquakes has a middleman. Changing currents during storms and earthquakes may temporarily shift the distribution of oarfish prey like plankton, crustaceans and squid, which might drive the rarely seen fish to the shallows.

Others suspect the connection is less complicated: since these animals are sensitive to stress, it’s possible they are easily damaged during big swells.

Whatever the cause, every oarfish sighting is an interesting one, and the Philippines has seen several giants in recent years. In 2016, a 12-foot (4m) behemoth washed up in the province of Albay. That fish had a flesh wound on its head, and no earthquake was detected following the stranding.

Quake-prone California has become something of a hotspot, too. In 2013, scientists found an 18-footer (5.4m) on the shores of Catalina Island, and several months after that, two living oarfish were seen in very shallow waters off the coast of Baja. The following year, this 14-foot oarfish swam past Oceanside in seemingly good condition:

Could any of these California sightings have something to do with the state’s various fault lines? It’s an interesting possibility, but we can’t say with certainty just yet. As with the strandings of whales and other marine creatures, it’s likely that various factors play a part.

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