The Folklore of Asia: Can Oarfish Predict Tsunamis?

In Asia, people believe that oarfish appearing near the surface or close to shore signals an impending disaster.

What makes people so shocked by this behavior of oarfish? Because it's remarkable when deep-sea creatures like oarfish, usually unseen by humans, suddenly become visible.

Japan's Folklore: Can Oarfish Predict Earthquakes?
Oarfish are the longest bony fish in the world, reaching lengths of up to 36 feet (about 11 meters)
Credit: By Rvalette - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Superstitions About Oarfish in Asia

In late 2019, an Indonesian fisherman caught an oarfish in his nets, causing a stir on social media, especially on Instagram. The video of the fish garnered over 80,000 likes, along with numerous comments expressing concern, like 'Hey, everyone, be careful!' and "Maybe we should start praying."

Even the fisherman remarked, 'This fish is a sign that a natural disaster will soon hit our area.' The Indonesian public's reaction highlights how oafish are commonly regarded as a bad omen across Asia.

Beliefs associated with oarfish in Japan

In Japan, there is a long-standing belief linking deep-sea oarfish to tsunamis. The idea that oarfish become visible just before tsunamis is still widely held today.

Such belief has been around for centuries. For example, an ancient Japanese chronicle from 1743 recounts a story of a mermaid encounter on the coast of Wakasa Province, which was followed by a devastating tsunami several days later. The chronicler likely misinterpreted the stranded oarfish on the cliffs as a mermaid in this story.

Unexplained Fish Behavior Before Natural Disasters

Can deep-sea fish provide useful information about the chances of a natural disaster occurring?

In 2010, a dozen oarfish washed up on the shore of Fukushima Prefecture, and seven days before the Great East Japan Earthquake, 54 whales stranded on the Shimotsu coast in Ibaraki. 

Unusual animal behavior before earthquakes is also documented in historical accounts. For example, during the Great Ansei Earthquake of 1855 in the Edo period, catfish, usually nocturnal, behaved strangely all day before the quake.

In 2019, three oarfish were spotted off the north coast of Japan, causing worries about a potential earthquake or tsunami. Fortunately, nothing happened.

Japan's Folklore: Can Oarfish Predict Earthquakes?
Oarfish are rarely seen by humans

Reports of the unusual behavior exhibited by animals before the earthquake in Japan on March 11, 2011, have awakened the interest of scientists. They sought to understand the reasons behind these unusual animal actions. Consequently, a team led by researchers from Tokai University and the University of Shizuoka commenced an investigation into the matter.

The Study of the Phenomena

The study published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America in June 2019,  focused on 336 documented sightings of eight deep-sea fish species historically linked to earthquakes, including oarfish, salmonfish, and orcas.

The sightings, captures, and strandings of rare deep-sea fish were examined and correlated with earthquakes and tsunamis.

In order to create a database, records from 1928 onwards were reviewed, and data was compiled using reports from newspapers, academic articles, and marine museums.

The Connection Between Deep Sea Fish Species and Earthquakes: Exploring a Possible Link
Oarfish thrive in the depths of the ocean, favoring habitats situated between 200 and 1,000 meters beneath the surface

In the next phase, researchers used data from the Japan Earthquake Center to find seismic events nationwide measuring 6.0. They focused on events within a 100km radius and occurring within 30 days after the reported sightings.

The results of the study

After analyzing all the avalaible data, researchers identified only one earthquake that met the specified criteria: the 2007 Niigata Prefectural Chuetsu-Oki earthquake, occurring 30 days after an unusual sighting. Thus, the study did not definitively prove that deep-sea fish sightings reliably predict earthquakes.

Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, the belief in strange animal behavior as a precursor to natural disasters persists. A survey of science majors at Japanese universities found that many students see strange animal behavior as a clear indicator of a major earthquake, even more so than electrical disturbances.

This belief isn't just superstition; there's some science to back it up. Before an earthquake, gases and electromagnetic waves from the ocean floor can disturb oarfish, causing them to move toward the surface. Therefore, sightings of deep-sea fish before earthquakes may really indicate impending seismic activity and should not be entirely dismissed.

The potential link between deep-sea fish sightings and earthquakes raises interesting questions about our planet. Can ocean animals feel small movements in the Earth's crust? Could their behavior act as a natural early warning system for earthquakes? 


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