INDIA. Chamoli, Uttarakhand: My love for animals and wildlife has been deeply rooted in me through the numerous stories that my mother and grandma used to tell me when I was a kid. They used to tell me about animals, reptiles, and fishes having senses that help them avoid predators or locate prey, and also help them anticipate disasters.
Tales of donkeys behaving awkwardly just before a big storm, dogs barking before the big earthquake hit, other wildlife behaving strangely before big hurricanes, earthworms pouring out of the ground just before the big flood strikes, and fishes coming up to the upper water surface just before tsunami and floods – all these are still etched in my mind even after almost fifty years.
That’s exactly what happened a few hours before the tragedy stuck Nanda Devi Sanctuary area in Chamoli district in form of a glacial break-off and subsequent flooding of the area that killed over 70 humans and leaving the area devastated.
It was just like any normal day in the hills. The villagers in Lasu village though noticed an unusual phenomenon in the Alaknanda River. They found the river water turn silvery with hundreds of fishes close to the surface. The word spread like wildfire and soon hundreds of locals came rushing with baskets, buckets, pots, pans to “pick up” the fish, all kinds of fish – mahseers, carps, and snow trouts. The fishes unusually were swimming on the surface and were sticking to the banks.
It really was an unusual phenomenon as fish always swim in the middle of the stream. Everyone went back home with heavy loads of fresh catch with fishes weighing up to 2 kg, and these catches were with bare hands.
But in the excitement, no one even thought of the reason behind this and also everyone missed looking at the waters which have turned grey, instead of a regular clear green. This was the colour of the slurry that was getting washed down from places uphill from village Raini, Tapovan, and other villages flooded in Chamoli.
The locals had no idea of what had happened about 70km upstream. This in fact was a precursor of what was going to strike them in about an hour or so. And this became evident as the surging river Dhauliganga ravaged everything that came in its path after the landslide-triggered avalanche and flooding.
Reason behind fishes coming up
It’s a general understanding that animals are more attuned to their environment and even researchers say it’s probably right to say that. Studies have shown that animals can sense major changes in the weather. Birds are known to be sensitive to air pressure changes, and we have seen unrest among birds before a big storm. Scientists say that with a change in the atmosphere, animals may not understand why it’s happening, but the change triggers their instinct and they move to an area that they think is safer for them. People in Japan and China have always regarded animals to possess some insights into the natural elements and disasters.
Fishes are supposed to possess particular sense organs: perceive electric fields that help them to detect environmental changes, like weak foreshocks or pressure changes, and variations in the local electromagnetic field, before a strong earthquake or a tsunami or heavy floods.
“Fishes are very sensitive to vibrations. Fish have a lateral line organ (a biological system in aquatic creatures that help them detect movement and pressure changes in water). It’s a very sensitive structure, a network of ultra-sensitive nerve endings that run along both sides of the fish from the gills to the tail. The lateral lines can sense and detect water pressure and depth, currents, and their speed, and objects in the water such as rocks, stumps, and debris. The slightest disturbance can send the fish into a state of shock,” said K Sivakumar, senior scientist at Wildlife Institute of India.
In the present scenario, the subsurface vibrations of whatever it is that caused the floods may have triggered this sixth sense of fishes upstream and forced them to rise to the surface.