Saturday, January 28, 2012

Can Whales Predict Tsunamis?

Observers have watched whales vanish after an undersea earthquake. Photo courtesy: Andrew Sutton via

Do whales hear earthquakes long before humans? As tsunami warnings hit the Indonesian and Sri Lankan coasts last week, observers at sea watched as every species of cetacean – from massive blue whales to diminutive spinner dolphins – disappeared within five minutes. British photographer and film-maker Andrew Sutton, who took this remarkable shot last Wednesday off the southern tip of Sri Lanka, reports that he and his crew were mystified as the whales they were watching vanished in the space of a few minutes. The humans on the boat were unaware that the quake had happened, but the animals had evidently sensed the subsea seismic shocks, and fled.

Could cetaceans act as canaries in the sea, as advance alarms of potentially dangerous seismic activity? What a totally exciting concept. There is so much more to the whale and dolphin families than we give them credit for. Last year, both the Japan and New Zealand earthquakes were preceded by mass cetacean strandings on these islands' beaches. And a recent scientific report from Mexico appears to prove that a fin whale accelerated sharply away from the site of an underwater earthquake.

But having already exploited whales for centuries, perhaps we should not be so quick to enlist their services. Back in 1964, another erstwhile resident of Sri Lanka, the science-fiction writer, Arthur C Clarke, predicted that by the year 2000, "we will not be the only intelligent creatures. One of the coming techniques will be what we might call bioengineering – the development of intelligent and useful servants among the other animals on this planet, particularly the great apes and, in the oceans, the dolphins and whales". While I agree with Mr. Clarke that we are not the only intelligent species on the planet; and, haven't been for a very long time; I don't believe that animals should be domesticated against their wills.

Clarke thought it a scandal that man had neglected to domesticate any new animals since the Stone Age. But he also foresaw other issues, too: "Of course [they] would soon start forming trades unions and we'd be right back where we started."

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