Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

Update to a Past Caterpickles: “Why does it rain fish in Honduras?”

worker using a broom to push fish to the side of the road

Worker cleaning up after the latest rain of fish. (Photo via Iyeey)

While I was busy not blogging this summer, it came to my attention that my daughter is 14. Which, by extension, means that this blog, which I started as a coping mechanism to deal with my then four-year-old daughter’s relentless curiosity, is 10 years old.

Goodness.

Thank you for reading Caterpickles all these years and keeping me motivated about writing in the process. You have no idea how many times over the years that this blog was the only thing I was able to write. Your presence here is truly a gift.

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to revisit a question post from the early days of the blog to see how well my answer has held up over time. After all, new information has a pesky habit of popping up and demanding that you take it into account.

It’s June, so my May 2015 post on the fish rains of Honduras is enjoying its annual resurgence in popularity. I decided to see how well it’s held up.

And that, Dear Reader, is how I learned that I’ve been woefully misled all these years about the entire thing.

But before I tell you where I went wrong, it’s seems only fair to remind you of what I’m talking about.

“Why does it rain fish in Honduras?”

Every year in May or June, a massive thunderstorm forms in Yoro, Honduras, pelting the region with heavy rain for hours. After the storm passes, locals emerge to find the ground covered in small, blind, silver fish.

According to Atlas Obscura, the rain of fishes in Yoro, Honduras happens at least once a year, and has been going on since the 1800s. Locals call it the Lluvia de Peces (rain of fish). For most of them, it’s simply a miracle. A miracle that happens annually. Given that utter predictability, we couldn’t help but wonder if there was a more secular explanation.

Where could we look for more information?

A trip to Honduras to witness the phenomenon for ourselves was out of the question. My daughter wasn’t willing to get several extra vaccinations, endure a long plane flight, and wait out a scary storm in Honduras just to get this answer. I wasn’t too thrilled about the potential expense. Especially since I was reasonably confident that we could find what we needed online.

The Atlas Obscura article mentioned that a team from the National Geographic had witnessed the phenomenon for themselves in the 1970s, so we decided to stop by the National Geographic website to see what, if anything, they had to say about it. 

On the Education section of the site, we found a Resource Library article titled “Strange Rains”, which catalogued the various types of so-called animal rains that fall in various parts of the world. Bats, polliwogs, fish, snakes, and jelly fish all have an unfortunate tendency to get caught up in waterspouts and updrafts only to fall back to Earth with the rain. Although animal rains have been occurring off and on for centuries, National Geographic was careful to point out that they typically only involve relatively small animals, and not actual cats and dogs.

(My daughter popped in while I rereading the National Geographic article. She was struck by their comment on cats and dogs. “So why do we say it’s raining cats and dogs then?” That, I told her, would have to wait for some other time when I wasn’t knee deep in fish rain facts. We’ve penciled it in the Caterpickles Wonder Book for next week.)

Interestingly, there was no mention in that article of either the annual Lluvia de Peces downpour or the fabled 1970s National Geographic excursion that apparently witnessed it. Clearly, we would have to look elsewhere if we wanted to learn more about that.

Our search led to a July 2013 Live Science article, “Lluvia de Peces: When Fish Rain From the Sky,” written by Elizabeth Palermo. You may recall it as the primary source for that original Caterpickles post.

In it, Palermo presents three main explanations for the annual fish rain.

Theory #1: It’s God, providing food for the poor

black and white pencil sketch of fish raining from the sky over a village.
Rain of Fish by Olaus Magnus (Via Historical Mysteries)

Local legend has it that the fish are a blessing from Spanish missionary Father Jose Manuel Subirana, who was so heartbroken by the poverty and hunger he witnessed in Yoro in the 1860s that he asked God to provide them with a regular source of food.

Proponents of this theory point to the fact that the fish aren’t native to the region’s rivers and streams. Clearly, they must have come from somewhere else, like the Atlantic Ocean.

Theory #2: It’s waterspouts, scooping up fish from the Atlantic and carrying them 125 miles to Yoro

When tornadoes and other powerful storms move over water they can form waterspouts or powerful updrafts that suck up small fish and other aquatic life and dump them elsewhere.

The problem is that once those waterspouts encounter land, they lose power very quickly. It doesn’t seem all that likely that a waterspout could carry fish 125 miles over land from the Atlantic Ocean to Yoro. If waterspouts were the explanation, it seems much more likely that the fish would be dropped somewhere much closer to their home, like anywher in the Honduran province of Atlantida, which lies between Yoro and the Atlantic Ocean.

Also, what are the odds that a waterspout would form directly over a giant school of fish every spring for more than 100 years? If that were true, it would be a miracle.

Theory #3: The fish live underground and are forced up by the rain

Both the Atlas Obscura and the LiveScience articles mentioned a team of scientists from the National Geographic traveling to Honduras in the 1970s to investigate the fish rain for themselves.

According to these sources, the National Geographic team noticed that the washed-up fish were completely blind, and appeared to be freshwater, not salt water fish. That led them to conclude that the fish lived in an underground river. Based on that, they decided that the most likely explanation for the annual fish-basting of Yoro was that the heavy rains forced the subterranean fish above ground. 

Blind silver fish lying on orange brick pavement
(Photo via Atlas Obscura)

This sounds plausible, but it has its own issues.

Let’s face it: Fish flushed out of their homes like earthworms after a heavy rain just aren’t as interesting as fish raining down from the sky. Also, apparently no one has found an egress point for this proposed underground river teeming with fish.

These are pesky issues, but in my original post, my daughter and I decided they weren’t pesky enough to throw the entire theory into question. Why would a National Geographic team lie about what they had found?

We decided that Theory #3 was the most likely explanation, and there the matter rested for six long years.

Wow, were we ever wrong about that

While checking the original sources for this post, I inevitably ran across several much more recent articles, including this one by Jack Palfrey for World Travel Guide: “Lluvia de Peces: Visiting the town that rains fish.

Turns out, that fabled National Geographic team may have been just that — a fable.

Unlike the other writers on this topic, myself included, who just accepted the existence of that National Geographic team based on frequent mentions of it in various articles over the years, Palfrey set out to interview them or at least review the documentary evidence they brought back for himself.

Palfrey asked National Geographic to connect him with at least one member of that original expedition team. In response, a National Geographic staffer informed Palfrey that there was no record in either the virtual archive of past issues or in the database of past grants of an expedition to Honduras to document the annual rain of fishes.  Thinking perhaps that the name of the geographic society had been blurred over time, Palfrey contacted the Royal Geographic Society. They had no record of ever sending an expedition to Honduras to document the fish rain either.

The question of the National Geographic team and whether they actually existed is a great example of how unsubstantiated information can proliferate online. Repetition itself has a way of making information feel true, and repetition can be accomplished online much more easily than almost anywhere else.

With the very existence of the National Geographic team thrown into question, Theory #3 no longer seems like the reasonable choice here.

Have no fear, Palfrey was ready with a replacement.

Theory #4: The heavy rains trigger a flash flood, which carries the fish from their rivers and streams into Yoro’s streets

Worried that he’d been taken in by an elaborate animal hoax, Palfrey selected one of the more authentic looking photographs of the fish in Yoro’s streets and sent it to a dozen marine biologists who specialize in Central American fish. Almost all of them agreed that the fish in the pictures were in fact members of the Characid family, a type of freshwater fish common in Central America. There were also a few catfish in the mix.

Given that, Palfrey’s team of experts speculated that the most likely explanation for the annual rain of fish was not a waterspout of fish falling from the sky, but a flash flood that carried the fish from their native streams and rivers and deposited them in Yoro. Flash floods are also fairly likely to be annual events.

What do we believe?

Assuming Palfrey really did the legwork he claims to have for his article, his take on the reason for the annual fish rain seems plausible. Still, we’ve been burned by sources before, so a quick background check on Jack Palfrey seemed to be in order.

From what I can tell from publicly available information, Jack Palfrey really is a travel writer for Lonely Planet, World Travel Guide, and BBC Travel, and his articles really do focus on off-beat, ecologically interesting destinations. Presumably he would know what he’s talking about (or if not, how to verify what he doesn’t know).

So we are inclined to take his view of things. At least for now.

Related Links:

3 Responses to “Update to a Past Caterpickles: “Why does it rain fish in Honduras?””

  1. “Why does it rain fish in Honduras every year?” | CATERPICKLES

    […] June 2021 Update: It’s been six years since I first published this post, and new information has a pesky habit of popping up over time. Too much has turned up to simply update this post. The answer I provide in this post is no longer the correct answer (as far as I can tell), so if you’re reading this, I invite you to come read what I think the answer ought to be now (and how I found it) here: “Update to a Past Caterpickles: Why does it rain fish in Honduras every year?“ […]

    Like

    Reply

What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: