A long time ago, back in the mists of childhood, I once had a jigsaw puzzle that I was literally unable to finish. Not that there was anything wrong with the puzzle – missing pieces, or such. It was literally impossible to complete. When fully assembled, it formed a sort of horizontal scene or frieze depicting zoo animals (here my memory is a little fuzzy) where the extreme right-hand side of the picture wrapped around to the left-hand side, so to speak. The upshot was that you could add the final puzzle pieces to one side or the other, but there would always be several holes somewhere without tabs to fill them.
What has this to do with life, the universe and fish falling from the skies, you ask? Hang on and I’ll explain.
While writing my previous blog about weird weather, I came across a news item first reported I think in Australia’s Northern Territory News on 28th February. It appears that on the previous Thursday and Friday afternoons (25th and 26th February) residents of the small town of Lajamanu (population about 669) witnessed hundreds of small white fish tumbling out of the heavens. Lajamanu is literally in the middle of nowhere, on the northern edge of the very isolated (and very dry) Tanami Desert region. The fish were identified as spangled perch, which are common in northern Australia; however, the nearest large bodies of water happen to be several hundreds of miles away.
What’s also interesting is that locals reported similar showers of fish happening before, in 2004 and in 1974. It would thus appear to be a recurring freak phenomenon, although that sounds a bit like a self-contradiction.
It is events like this that get my attention, as they remind me that we do not yet know more than a tiny fraction of what is to be known in this peculiar universe we inhabit. I’m very curious about the twilight zone beyond the not-so-respectable fringes of knowledge, the territory of the paranormal, cryptids, crop circles, UFOs and the vast and baffling range of Fortean phenomena, of which the Lajamanu fishfall is a nice example. Here be many things – dragons, surely, and many other kinds of monsters, but also plenty of hoaxes, tricks, fakes, illusions, delusions and honest misunderstandings. Serious scientists hesitate to set foot in this very debatable region, and who could blame them, honestly?
Showers of fish (also frogs and other animate and inanimate objects) have been reported time out of mind. The picture I made for this blog includes a detail from a woodcut dating back to AD 1555. Pliny the Elder writes about storms of frogs and fish in Roman times. Unusual variants of this phenomenon include a fall of jellyfish-like creatures the size of shillings in Bath, England in 1894, a light dusting of venison flakes over Kentucky in 1876, a shower of 16th century coins in Russia in 1940 and a hailstorm of golf balls in Punta Gorda, Florida, in 1969.
The standard rational explanation for these events (assuming, of course, that any given report is genuine) is that the fish/frogs/golf balls et al. are vacuumed up by a passing tornado (or waterspout if over water), lifted thousands of feet into the sky and transported great distances by the winds, to be dumped elsewhere, creating an instant mystery wherever they land. Roger of Ockham would be pleased by this explanation – no multiplication of entities here! Tornados and waterspouts are things we know of – we’ve seen them, photographed them and video’d them. We know that living creatures, including cows and humans, can be sucked up into the sky by these horrors. They are indisputably in the file marked Science Fact.
There are, however, some indications that there is more to the story.
Firstly, there’s the fact that no-one appears to have witnessed or traced the entire phenomenon from start to finish. It would help immensely, for instance, if a group of reliable observers noticed a waterspout poised over a lake at point A, hoovering up its population of fish and then moving a hundred miles to the northeast where another group of reliable observers witnessed it releasing its catch over an unsuspecting village at point B. Has this ever happened? I don’t think it has (although obviously I could be wrong.)
And then there’s the fact that in many (or most?) of these cases, the contents of these showers all appear to be of the same kind of creature (recall that in the Lajamanu incident, the fish seem to have been spangled perch, presumably with few or no exceptions.) You would think that if a waterspout stole the contents of an entire pond, there would be all sorts of items – fish, frogs, clumps of weeds, the odd duck or two, a Wellington boot, a couple of car hubcaps and the rusting remains of a supermarket trolley. Why just fish, and in such numbers, too?
One valid reason for the sameness of the fish, I suppose, might be that the air currents would sort and separate the heavier objects from the lighter objects. The abandoned trolley would crash to earth the soonest, I suppose, followed by the muddy boot. If there were plenty of fish of the same kind, they would all be of a similar size and weight, and would possibly rise and fall as one, flopping out of the sky en masse, a few hours later. After all, when it hails, the hailstones tend to be all of a certain size (although it’s true that they can vary, depending on how many times each individual hailstone has travelled up and down within its stormcloud.) However, it would be lovely to have more evidence of this sort of process actually happening…
It can get very cold up in the clouds. Mark Kersemakers of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology says, of the Lajamanu fish “Once they get up into the weather system they are pretty much frozen and after some time they are released.” Which is fine, but why would they not fall as Birds Eye frozen fish, in that case? From the February report, it would appear that the fish were initially alive when they came into contact with the ground, and going by the one press photo we have as evidence, they appear to look remarkably undamaged. As a thought experiment, imagine taking a live perch up to 50,000 feet and drop it out of an aeroplane – what would it be like after being flash-frozen in mid-air, accelerating to terminal velocity (possibly thawing as it fell) and impacting against the hard surface of the desert? Not alive and not pretty, I would guess.
So I’m not absolutely convinced by the waterspout theory, although I think it’s the best we have, so far. But I won’t be drawn right now into discussing some of the more outlandish hypotheses, such as aliens, fabulous portals through time and space, or air elementals, although these are certainly fun things to discuss. The great Charles Fort himself mostly refused to speculate on the whys and wherefores of Fortean phenomena (although he did write playfully at times of an immense Sargasso Sea above our heads, from which things would fall from time to time) so I could do worse than follow his example.
Weird things keep happening, is the message I’d like to convey. Sometimes we have a breakthrough and the weirdness leads to a new realm of knowledge, as was the case with meteorites. But there always seems to be a reservoir of strange stuff at the edges of science, constantly refilling itself as we try and empty it. In fact, the universe seems a little like my never-ending jigsaw puzzle of childhood days, never quite complete, always presenting a row of empty holes for which we have no pieces – yet.
On the off-chance that there are mischievous sky-elementals haunting the world, however, it would no doubt be wise to give occasional thanks to them for providing such entertainment over the centuries. And just before each of us aficionados of the weird finally shuffles off his or her mortal coil, a short prayer to the Fortean gods might be in order.
Ending perhaps in: “So long – and thanks for all the fish”.