When a “messenger from the sea god’s palace” shows up dead on a beach, the Japanese listen because it is believed to be a harbinger of earthquakes. That message was delivered to New Zealand’s South Island last week when an oarfish, the mythical Japanese messenger, washed ashore. Is it time for New Zealanders to head for earthquake shelters or higher ground?
A three-meter (10-foot) oarfish (Regalecus glesne) was found on the beach at Aramoana on April 16. Unusual-looking even when that size, the oarfish is known to reach up to 11 meters (36 feet) in length and there are rumors of one measuring 17 meters (56 feet), which is why many believe it’s the creature many have seen when they thought they had seen a sea monster.
While it’s not a monster, “ryugu no tsukai” does have a reputation for predicting earthquakes. In Japanese folklore, Ryūjin is the dragon god of the sea, Ryūgū-jō is its undersea palace and the oarfish is its messenger. The message brought by dead oarfish is impending earthquakes and that appeared to be the case in 2011 when 20 oarfish came up on beaches in the area where the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami caused the most damage.
Coincidence? Maybe. Dragon god? Who knows? Science? A good possibility. Earthquakes release large quantities of carbon monoxide that can affect large deep sea creatures like the oarfish. The small fissures that precede major earthquakes could leak enough of the gas to make the fish sick and beach themselves before dying. Another possibility put forth by Rachel Grant, a lecturer in animal biology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, is electricity.
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. This can lead to the formation of hydrogen peroxide, which is a toxic compound. The charged ions can also oxidize organic matter which could either kill the fish or force them to leave the deep ocean and rise to the surface.
While other researchers question these links between oarfish and earthquakes, they have no explanation for why these rarely-seen monsters of the deep – one of the largest known bony fish – surface and die. Whatever the reason, it can’t be good.