A dead blue whale washed up on the shore of a small fishing town in Newfoundland last week. A bloated, beached, blubbery bomb of a blue whale. As of Thursday morning, the carcass is still intact, but onlookers are worried that it might soon explode. Literally. (The Atlantic)
- The whales that recently washed up in Canadian seaside towns look very, very different than healthy blues in the ocean. Why are the dead whales bloated?
- Blue whales are mammals, and all mammals bloat when they die. Dead mammals bloat because bacteria and enzymes are busy breaking down the body’s internal organs—stomach, heart, intestines, pancreas, you name it. Breaking them down into what, you ask? Foul-smelling gases such as methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide. (Yes, the same greenhouse gases cows famously pass.)
- What usually happens to a whale’s body when it dies? Does it wash ashore? Does it float in the ocean? Does it sink to the bottom of the sea?
- All three can happen.
- Dead whales can wash ashore. They die at sea, and currents wash them up on a beach. The carcass is a buffet for scavengers and omnivores such as polar bears, wolves, and birds (including endangered California condors).
- Dead whales can float on the ocean surface for a little while. The carcasses, weighing dozens of tons, are buoyed by the same gases that cause them to bloat. On the surface, the carcass again is a feast for birds, sharks, and other fish.
- Dead whales ultimately sink to the ocean floor. This important process is called a whale fall. The Canadian Museum of Nature gives a fantastic explanation of what happens when a whale dies here. On the seafloor, a whale’s body can provide food for more than 100 years!
- All three can happen.
- So, if this is a natural phenomenon, why are the people of Trout River, on the central west coast of the lovely island of Newfoundland, so worried about their big, bloated whale?
- It might explode! The build-up of methane and other gases might put too much pressure on the whale’s decaying skin . . . causing the whale’s body to burst like a balloon. The rotting guts of the whale could splatter as far as a quarter-mile along the beach. (As Taiwanese residents now know, this can also happen when transporting a bloated whale carcass through city streets.)
- It stinks! Decomposing bodies stink, and this is a huge decomposing body. Trout River, a tiny town near a national park, has a strong tourist economy in the summer. The whale may or may not be the kind of tourist attraction the town wants.
- City leaders and some scientists are worried about people poking around the whale. A scientist quoted in the Atlantic article explains: “The [whale] skin is starting to lose its integrity and if someone were to walk along, say, the chin—that is full of all that gas—they could fall in the whale. The insides will be liquefied. Retrieving them would be very difficult. I have fallen through the side of a whale up to my chest. It’s not very nice.” If that intrigues you, you should really read chapter 78 of Moby Dick, where Queequeg (the real hero of the book) rescues Tashtego after he falls into the whale carcass. Gross.
- What would suggest if you were an elected official in Trout River? If you were the owner of a seaside business, such as a restaurant or retail shop? If you were a marine biologist? If you were a tourist?