Beached Whales

Your urgent inquiries about the world. Answered.

May 10, 2011
Outside Magazine

Q. What's the story with the whales washing up on shore before the New Zealand and Japan earthquakes? Are they bellwethers of seismic activity?

A. Strange animal behavior goes hand in hand with earthquakes. In 373 b.c., the earliest documented instance of faunal forecasting, hordes of rats, weasels, and snakes fled the Greek city of Helike days before a massive temblor destroyed it. Elephants, which can detect quake-generated Rayleigh waves, broke their chains to reach higher ground before the 2004 Asian tsunami. In February, 107 pilot whales stranded themselves on a remote New Zealand beach days before the 6.3-magnitude quake. And in March, 50 melon-headed whales washed ashore in Japan a week before the magnitude-9 quake. But were the quakes and beachings related?

"It seems reasonable that a disturbance in the earth's geomagnetic field prior to a quake might lead to aberrant behavior," says Bruce Robison, a scientist at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. "But the evidence is anecdotal."

Darlene Ketten, a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, notes that melon-headed whales often mass-strand for reasons other than seismic events. "The more common finding is that they strand coincident with lunar cycles," says Ketten. This holds true in both cases. New Zealand's pilot whales were found stranded two days after the full moon; the melon-headed whales beached in Japan on the new moon. The latter may also have been following prey that move according to lunar cycles.

If the whales were reacting to oceanic rumblings, says Ketten, "multiple species should have been affected, not just one."