A Stinking Whale of a Problem

By Allison Brown

Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times: Removing a whale carcass on the shoreline of San Onofre State Beach http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-whale-carcass-removal-orange-county-20160428-story.html

A couple of years ago I stumbled across a video on the internet so funny I was amazed that it did not feature a single cat. The video depicted a somewhat gruesome event, however the narrator’s pronunciation of the word “whale” and the sheer ridiculousness of the situation serve to induce hilarity. The video is a clip of a news report that took place on November 12th, 1970 and shows Paul Linnman reporting on KATU News about a beached whale on the Oregon coast and the ensuing disaster. Paul starts off hot by stating that when the dead whale washed up on the beach “it had to be said that the Oregon state highway division not only had a whale of a problem on its hands, it had a stinking whale of a problem.” See what I mean about hilarious? Maybe it’s just my sense of humor. The division apparently decided that “the whale couldn’t be buried because it might soon be uncovered, it couldn’t be cut up and then buried because nobody wanted to cut it up and it couldn’t be burned…so dynamite it was.” They proceeded to place that dynamite on one side of the whale so as to blow most of the chunks to sea, but the hope was that most of the whale would be disintegrated in the blast and the other small particles would be cleaned up by seagulls and other scavengers. Unfortunately for everyone, this did not exactly work out and cheers are abruptly cut off as “everyone on the scene was covered with small particles of dead whale.” The chunks were not all small though, and one even smashed in a parked car over a quarter of a mile away. All this drama is narrated by Paul Linnman’s great puns and alliteration. This event actually happened and though I find it to be a wonderful learning opportunity that is also absolutely amazing internet content and has even spawned its own website, it does bring up a good question. What do we do with a beached whale?

A whale is a mammal, if you remember your elementary school lessons, and all stranded marine mammals whether dead or alive are the responsibility of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA coordinates stranding networks around the US consisting of a variety of scientific investigators, volunteers, individuals, institutions and other organizations. The coastlines are parceled up and depending on where a beached whale is found there is a phone number specifically for that area. It is important to separate these areas because getting to a whale quickly, whether alive or dead is of the utmost importance. If alive, the Network can respond to try and keep the whale as comfortable as possible until the tide comes back in or can consider euthanasia if it’s available and if the whale’s injuries or illness are too severe for recovery. If already dead, then the whale is a gold mine of information and a necropsy is in order. That information is going to be at its best when the samples are as fresh as possible.

Whales beach for a variety of reasons and either beach singly or in mass stranding events. Single stranding can be caused by a myriad of things such as weather, illness, injury, disorientation, issues with echolocation near gently sloping shores, or simply dying at sea and washing up on shore with the currents and wind. Most whales that die at sea probably won’t make it to shore, but will sink to the bottom of the ocean in what is called a whale fall and contribute to the ecosystem. Mass stranding events are not well understood, though with those species that swim in a group with a “lead animal” it is probable that the lead animal led the group onto shore due to an injury or illness, or navigational mistake. Other possibilities could be underwater noise, such as military low frequency active sonar (LFAS), which seems to cause hemorrhaging around some whale species ears and brains and disorientation. Sometimes humans purposefully cause stranding by driving whales ashore in large groups for the purpose of killing them for meat or tradition. This does not happen in the United States and is a source of international controversy.

So what to do with a dead whale on the beach? No method is easy or cheap. If the whale is in a place where people don’t go often then NOAA will just leave it to decompose naturally, and other animals may consider it a feast and speed along the process. If the whale is in your backyard, something has to be done. Towing the whale out to sea is an option. Though ocean currents and wind needs to be analyzed to make sure the whale won’t wash back ashore or the whale needs to be sunk. Another option is burying the whale at the beach above the high tide line, though this may not be possible at some beaches due to small beach size or shallow beach depth. Bystanders are also invested in the whale and may have objections to certain disposal methods, not to mention the ‘yuck’ factor of some processes. One such disposal process that many may not like is the cutting of the whale into manageable pieces and hauling it to a landfill. This comes with some risk as gasses build up over time in the cavities of dead whales and cutting into them releases those in a forceful, dangerous, and disgusting way. This was the only option early in 2016 when a 40-foot gray whale washed ashore in San Clemente, California. Obviously, it would be hard to make this disposal method dignified for the whale and the gruesomeness could upset onlookers. The sector state parks superintendent asked the public to stay away while they removed the whale for these reasons.

A whale washing up on shore is always a big deal. Seeing these awesome creatures in such dire straits or deceased is extremely sad to most people and that, along with the health risks posed by a rotting whale, is enough of a reason to remove stranded whales as quickly as possible. Hopefully, those deciding how to remove a whale take notes from 1970 and don’t use explosives because as we saw that day in Oregon “the sand dunes…were covered with spectators and land lubber newsmen shortly to become land blubber newsmen for the blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds” and absolutely no one wants to be covered in particles of dead whale.