Several beached whales that have washed up on the Newfoundland coastline have gotten a lot of attention in the last few days as concern over how to dispose of the carcasses stimulates many discussions. Trout River, the site of one decomposing whale carcass, is a small fishing community with roughly 600 residents. The whale washed up along their rocky shore a week ago, attracting tourists and Internet gawkers alike. However, since the tide deposited the whale in the town’s front yard, the leviathan has nearly doubled in size. Internal gases threaten to implode within the beast at any time, which would explode like a bomb, shooting shards of rotting corpse across the town and any nearby tourists, creating various and multiple health risks. City officials want to take advantage of the educational blessings the whale could yield, but not having the proper resources to dismantle the 60-ton, 81 foot carcass has been a detriment to their efforts.
At least three, and some sources say up to nine, blue whales, the biggest of all mammals, have washed up along the western shores of Newfoundland creating similar predicaments: The towns feel blessed that the creatures can be seen up close and personal, that they are bringing in tourism, and that society can potentially learn something more about the elusive sea mammal, but the impending doom of the spontaneous explosion is such threat, many do-gooders are feeling thwarted by biology’s cruel joke.
According to Lance Barrett-Lennard, head of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Cetacean Research Program, at the moment the Trout River whale’s decomposition is similar as to what happens in a compost heap. Even though the animal is deceased, the thick, outer layer of blubber holds in the heat and methane gas generated by its decomposing visceral organs. Once the body is pierced, this buildup can be fairly explosive, which is grossly viewable via many YouTube videos.
“They can be pretty impressive geysers of goo,” Barrett-Lennard says of the massive creatures. However, he thinks it is fairly likely that as the flesh rots, the explosive gases will leak out as well. Eventually, the whale will resemble an old and gigantic deflated balloon.
Newfoundland community officials say Canadian legislature leaves the responsibility of how to dispose of the beached whales to the towns, but small towns like Trout River do not have the expertise nor the financial means for the such an immense removal. Governement agencies are being contacted for help, and The Department of Fisheries and Oceans says the disposal will most likely be dispersed via different levels of government.
Barrett-Lennard offers three options: “sink it, bury it or slice it.” To properly sink the creature, one potentially acceptable means would be to tow the carcass out to sea. Town officials have expressed concern that the carcass would potentially get in the way of sea-faring freights in shipping channels, but Barrett-Lennard suggests anchoring the corpse with old train wheels, or something heavy enough to fully submerge the mass. This way the giant mammal helps promote the circle of life, providing plenty of food for other sea animals. Burying the animal is another option, but some worry decomposing blubber oil may leach into the soil, disrupting the eco-system.
Although many within the community want to do what they can to preserve the mammal’s skeleton for display, this would be the most intensive effort. Barrett-Lennard agrees that blue whale skeletons are rare, and it would be very rewarding to the community if they could carry out the procedure, but the 60-tons of skin, blubber, and muscle, would need to be cut away, and then the bones would need to be properly treated.
As for now, despite the threat of a catastrophic whale blubber explosion, in Barrett-Lennard’s opinion, the Newfoundland carcasses pose no real hazard beyond the ineffable smell, which may be nature’s way of letting people know to keep their distance. He says there are some diseases that can be passed between whales and humans, but it is generally not a good idea to be too close to a corpse of any kind.
However the Newfoundland communities decide to dispose of the beached whales, it would be in their best interest to make a decision quickly. Even if the beast does not burst open, as gases leak out slowly, the town will continue to be swathed in the formidable stench, and the likelihood of the deflation happening rapidly is not very likely. Although tourism may be at a peak for now, eventually people will want to be home next to their potpourri.
By Stacy Feder