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How Do You Deal with a Giant, Stinking, Potentially Explosive Whale Corpse?

Disposing of tens of tons of rotting, methane-loaded blubber is not an easy task.

by Harry Cheadle
02 May 2014, 6:00am

A dead whale on the California coast in 2007. (Photo via Flickr user Images by John 'K')

OK, so let's say you have a dead whale on your hands. Depending on where you live, this is not as uncommon a problem as it might seem. Residents of Newfoundland, Canada, for example, are currently dealing with a pair of rotting blue whale corpses. These noble giants of the sea were likely killed by some ice, and now they sit rather ignobly on rocky beaches, rotting and slowly filling up with methane gas, which bloats the bodies and could cause them to explode.

Living beached whales are a challenge to deal with in their own right. Occasionally, they can be kept wet and breathing long enough to be guided back to sea, but often they die of natural causes or have to be euthanised to spare them unnecessary suffering. When that happens, you’re left with the same issue faced by local officials in Newfoundland, where the government has told the towns of Trout River and Rocky Harbour that it’s their responsibility to deal with the whales. But how do you handle 60 tons of decomposing meat?

Here are some options:

Let the corpses stay: They might be good for tourism!
Everyone loves a giant dead aquatic mammal. From the Wire:

“People have been flocking to the town in the past week to get a look at the carcass, according to Jenny Parsons, a restaurant owner in town.

[…]

At least one Trout River resident wants to take advantage of the large influx of gawkers. She told the Guardian, ‘Right now we have a stream of traffic coming to see this whale, and we would like that to develop further into maybe, “What can we do with this whale for future tourism?”’”

The difficulty here is that people like looking at whale corpses, but they really, really don’t like smelling them – the same folks snapping #DeadWhaleSelfies will presumably not hang around to sample the local delicacies when the air smells like bloated, rotting blubber.

OK, but can anything be done to profit from the whales’ deaths? Can people sell bits of blubber as souvenirs?
No, absolutely not. Blue whales are endangered, which means you can’t saw off the whales’ flippers – as one bold Trout River resident did – without breaking the law. And getting close to the corpses means you risk getting all kinds of whale-borne viruses, not to mention the chance of falling into a whale if you stand on its decomposing skin.

What about getting rid of all the nasty blubber and turning the whales’ skeletons over to a museum?
Some communities in Newfoundland have been doing this – the plan is to “develop a network of whale skeleton pavilions”, according to a 2010 CBC News story about how the Canadian town of King’s Point built one such structure. That article says it took nearly a decade of volunteer labour and $700,000 Canadian (£378,000) to strip the meat from the bones, though the end result was “definitely worth the effort”.

But when asked about the prospects of doing that to the dead whales in Trout River and Rocky Harbour, Maurice Budgell, the guy in charge of the King’s Point Heritage Society, didn’t seem excited about undertaking the task again:

"'With all of the problems that we had with the one that we have here now, it would be a monstrous job to take on something else like that,' said Budgell.

'The biggest problem for us were just [the] volunteers not in the fishing business – it was the smell of the whale, the smell of the blubber.'

Budgell said some of the equipment used to get the flesh off the bones still smells like rotting whale blubber, ten years after the task was completed."

Truck the bodies away to a landfill then!
Provided you have a big enough truck and a crane that can lift the whale carcass, this is a good way to at least get the whale away from your town. You have to be careful about transporting these big guys though, as they can explode at any time, as Taiwan residents found out in 2004.

By the way, if you want to see a video of how a whale explodes due to methane gas buildup, I STRONGLY RECOMMEND you watch this video of a biologist cutting a corpse open (for science!) and nearly getting blasted by a slurry of blood and organs. Pay particular attention to the nervous guy getting the hell out of the way at the 0:05 mark:

Why not graffiti the corpses?
OK, you could do this – as one New Jersey resident did to a small dead whale that recently washed up in Atlantic City – but it still doesn’t solve your problem.

What about just blowing the whole thing up?
This novel solution was notoriously hit upon by an engineer in Oregon named Paul Thornton, who was tasked with dealing with a whale corpse in 1970. This decision resulted in chunks of whale blubber – some as big as coffee tables – raining down on suddenly terrified bystanders. Eventually, thanks to one of the most charming websites of all time, the story of the Exploding Whale and Thornton’s terrible, terrible decision spread far and wide. The local news story on the incident has been seen by millions, and should be in some kind of hall of fame:

OK, shit, so… bury the bodies?

This may be the best thing to do with a whale corpse: New York City buried a 60-foot finback whale that washed up in 2012, and Uruguay disposed of a 52-foot sperm whale that way earlier this year. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to do, however – you’ll need a lot of cranes and trucks to get the job done. And as a 2009 whale burial in Florence, Oregon shows, putting one of these guys in the ground can involve cutting them into pieces, which is EXTREMELY GROSS JESUS CHRIST:

Anyway, if you see a dead whale on the beach, tell an adult immediately. If you want to know what’s going on with the whales in Newfoundland, check out HasTheWhaleExplodedYet.com.

@HCheadle