It’s raining fish: Animal oddities might have a message for California’s humans

·4 min read
Rogelio V. Solis/ASSOCIATED PRESS

A month ago, I took a walk through the edge of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. I was off the main road, on a dirt and gravel trail. So it was strange to look ahead and see that fish were blocking my path.

Yes, at least a dozen small, silvery fish — most of them completely intact, looking as if they had been recently alive — were scattered along the trail and in nearby bushes. I immediately assumed the worst, thinking this must be a sign of some human-caused catastrophe (a symptom of climate change, perhaps). But I was wrong.

I snapped some photos and posted them to Instagram, hoping one of my followers would be able to explain the mystery of these fish out of water. But my friends were just as mystified as I was, including one who works at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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Then a friend who lives in San Francisco added yet another layer to the mystery: She had seen the same kind of fish, also looking intact and also on the ground. She had photographic proof! Yet she saw them in the Presidio, miles away from where I had spotted my silvery swimmers.

The answer came a few weeks later: “Anchovies are reportedly raining from the sky across San Francisco,” read the headline of a June SFGate story. The reason? Ocean temperatures are colder than normal due to upwelling, a natural phenomenon in which winds drive cold, nutrient-rich water from the deep ocean to the surface. As a result, nutrients, followed by plankton and then anchovies and other small fish, are brought to the top — meaning animals like seabirds need only skim the ocean surface for a mouthful of fish rather than dive in for a measly few.

That also means that seabirds have more anchovies than they can eat. The fish falling from the sky? They’re spilling out of the mouths of birds like pelicans as they fly back to land.

The sudden wealth of anchovies from upwelling is actually a sign of a healthy ocean. But the bizarre nature of the situation reminded me of other disconcerting occurrences of late also involving the ocean and its many inhabitants.

In May, an anglerfish — a truly horrifying-looking creature with sharp, protruding teeth and a bioluminescent bulb hanging from a stalk sprouting out of its head — washed ashore on an Orange County beach. The fish, made notorious by its terrifying depiction in “Finding Nemo,” typically resides at ocean depths of 3,000 feet.

It’s not the first time an alien-looking deep sea creature has washed ashore, nor will it be the last. As flooding, heavy rains, windstorms and other severe weather events increase due to a changing climate, more living beings will be displaced. Think about the bears, mountain lions and other forest-dwelling animals forced to abandon their habitat due to wildfires and drought.

The human impact on the climate has resulted in more instances of animals behaving oddly and appearing in unnatural places. These aren’t new or surprising observations — animals and humans alike will need to change our behavior to adapt and survive in an increasingly unlivable environment.

At the same time, however, it’s a mistake to explain away all abnormal behavior in the animal kingdom as a reaction to or consequence of human activity. Humanizing animals or viewing them through a strictly humanistic lens is foolish, as “The Island of Dr. Moreau” warned. Much of the natural world evolved apart from humans and remains mysterious to us.

Filmmaker Jordan Peele’s latest horror movie, “Nope,” criticizes the human desire to understand and tame wild animals. The main characters, O.J. and Em, don’t realize their lives are at risk when their Wi-Fi or the power at their remote ranch goes out. Sure, it’s terrifying when blunt force objects fall from the sky, but that could be a freak accident, right?

No, it’s only when their tamed, trusty family horse, Ghost, suddenly bolts, jumping its enclosure and sprinting from an indiscernible threat that the characters know something is amiss.

Animals are often suspected of an uncanny ability to detect danger before humans can. Historically, this sixth sense has signaled all sorts of impending danger, including natural disasters. In 2011, for example, Japanese pet owners recalled their animals exhibiting bizarre behaviors in the hours leading up to a disastrous earthquake.

So what does it mean when fish fall from the sky? When creatures that dwell at the bottom of the ocean suddenly wash up on our shores? Maybe it’s a prophecy of the end times. Maybe it means we should keep spare crackers on hand in case of falling anchovies. Or maybe it has absolutely nothing to do with us. Or