By People Staff
September 11, 1989 12:00 PM

Oscar the fish ordinarily doesn’t do a whole lot. A member of an exotic species from South America, he (or possibly she—no one knows) swims around placidly in a 110-gallon freshwater tank at Corona Del Mar High School in Southern California. Once in a while, though, Oscar does something of earthshaking importance: He rolls over onto one side.

When that happens, it’s a signal for faculty and students to evacuate. Over the last two years, by rolling over like that, Oscar has compiled a surprising record in predicting earthquakes.

Biology teacher Ron Schnitger, 54, says he first noticed something strange about Oscar on the morning of Oct. 1, 1987. The 9-inch orange-and-dark brown fish was swimming on his side instead of flapping around in his usual upright position. “It was like he was playing dead,” says Schnitger. Oscar, however, was not ready to cash in his chips; he was just doing his fish shtik: Moments later, everything in the building began shaking violently as an earthquake that registered 5.9 on the Richter scale rocked the area. Once the quake ended, Oscar slid back to his normal posture.

The fish continued his possibly predictive behavior through 1988, but his owner didn’t take it seriously. Then earlier this year, Oscar predicted a quake again. “I’m a skeptic,” says Schnitger, “and we still lack evidence that the fish is doing anything, but I think there’s something to all this.

“Oscar’s not perfect; he’s like the rest of us,” Schnitger adds. Indeed, Oscar failed to roll over before a pair of quakes last month. Yet on the whole his consistency is quite remarkable. According to Schnitger, the fish performed his patented sidestroke before a temblor this Jan. 30 and again on June 12.

Is there any scientific explanation for Oscar’s uncanny prescience? Dr. Kate Hutton, a seismologist at Caltech, says the phenomenon isn’t “totally off the wall.” Little research has been done on animal reactions to earthquakes, Hutton says, but just before a temblor in China in the winter of 1975, hibernating snakes were seen to scramble to the surface. “The speculation,” she says, “is that animals could be reacting to foreshocks or electromagnetic effect caused by changes in ground pressure.”

So far, no one has considered a much simpler explanation: Could it be that Oscar the fish has Richter scales?