Last week, a dead humpback whale washed ashore on Jones Beach in New York, prompting a flurry of attention from news choppers and spectators — including the father of Discovery News Earth producer Michael Reilly, who took the photograph above, of researchers conducting a necropsy. Results of that necropsy suggested that the whale had likely died of blunt force trauma, presumably as a result of being struck by a ship. Alas, that happens more often than you might think, prompting the federal government to impose speed limits on vessels in certain areas at certain times to protect endangered right whales.
When whales die at sea, they generally sink to the bottom, where they form the basis of an extraordinary and unique ecosystem. But when they float ashore, they create a whale of a problem: Disposing of 40 or more tons of decomposing meat and blubber isn’t the easiest task in the world.
In 1806, Lewis and Clark came upon some Tillamook Indians boiling the blubber of a beached whale “in a trough of about 20 gallons with some hot stones.” Clark bargained for about 300 pounds of blubber, which Lewis consumed with much enthusiasm: “I had a part of it cooked and found it very pallitable and tender, it
resembled the beaver or the dog in flavour.” (I can’t even begin to list the number of things my 21st century vegetarian sensibilities find wrong with that, but that’s another story).
Generally speaking, tucking in to dead beached whales is today regarded as (a) illegal – at least in the United States; (b) a health hazard; and (c) really, really weird. So what to do?
A museum or other research or educational establishment may volunteer to take the skeleton post-necropsy – although they may have to settle for the skull. But that still leaves the question of how to dispose of the rest of it.
By and large, there are two solutions, and the preferred route depends on the state of the carcass and the suitability of tides and terrain: Tow it back out to sea, far enough that it won’t wash back on to land; or bury it in the sand. (Either technique, of course, requires the deployment of some seriously heavy machinery. Canoes and shovels need not apply). If the decision is Option B, but the whale has washed ashore on a beach that is too rocky or where the sand isn’t sufficiently deep, then the carcass will need to be transported, by land or by sea, to a more suitable burial ground.
But there are those for whom such undertakings (as it were) are just too … hard. Why bury or tow something, when you can just blow it up?
Which brings us, of course, to November 1970, when Oregon officials decided to take care of a sperm whale carcass with dynamite. Flawless plan, right? Well, not so much, as the inimitable Dave Barry later wrote:
The thinking here was that the whale would be blown into small pieces, which would be eaten by sea gulls, and that would be that. A textbook whale removal. So they moved the spectators back up the beach, put a half-ton of dynamite next to the whale and set it off. I am probably not guilty of understatement when I say that what follows, on the videotape, is the most wonderful event in the history of the universe. First you see the whale carcass disappear in a huge blast of smoke and flame. Then you hear the happy spectators shouting “Yayy!” and “Whee!” Then, suddenly, the crowd’s tone changes. You hear a new sound like “splud.” You hear a woman’s voice shouting “Here come pieces of… MY GOD!” [...] One piece caved in the roof of a car parked more than a quarter of a mile away. Remaining on the beach were several rotting whale sectors the size of condominium units. There was no sign of the sea gulls, who had no doubt permanently relocated in Brazil.
Not that whale carcasses necessarily need dynamite to explode; decomposition gases can do the job just as well, as this poor fellow discovered:
Not a pleasant experience, I think we all can agree; so save a thought for the unfortunate residents of Tainan, Taiwan, who were merrily minding their own business when they were suddenly splattered with sperm whale goo. It had taken 50 workers and three cranes thirteen hours to lift the carcass onto a trailer, which was to transport it to waiting researchers; alas, on a crowded street, the whale blew up:
Several parked cars and pedestrians got covered in blood when it exploded. Residents and shop owners wore masks while trying to clean up the spilt blood and entrails. “What a stinking mess. This blood and other stuff that blew out on the road is disgusting, and the smell is really awful,” said one resident.
Perhaps, then, one shouldn’t be surprised at the tongue-in-cheek advice offered by one biologist: “The simplest way for a carcass to disappear is to turn your back on it
and walk away.”