18 Jul 2014
The sad news about whales is that nine blue whales died late this winter off Newfoundland, because of unusually thick sea ice. Two of the whale carcasses drifted to shore on beaches near the towns of Trout River and Rocky Harbour. But here is where the sad news gets interesting. A 60-tonne body of a whale stretches out along a beach in a way that just can't be ignored, especially when the whale begins to decay. Nobody wants to be downwind of a dead whale. As the mayor of Trout River said, "Rotting marine fat is probably the worst smell you've ever smelled in your life."
He's right. I've seen a dead whale on the beach near Tofino, BC years ago. It was only a small grey whale, but it was the worst stink I've ever known!
There have been some unusual efforts to deal with dead whales on other beaches. People have learned the hard way that it's better to deal with the whale before it rots enough to explode and spread bad-smelling goo all over the beach. There's a video at the Guardian newspaper's website showing a controlled release of the rot inside a dead whale -- click here only if you want to see something gross. Another dead whale in Oregon was dealt with using dynamite... which only spread the problem around in a spectacular explosion.
On the other hand, a blue whale skeleton is an amazing thing to be around, when it's displayed in a museum. The Beaty collection at the University of British Columbia has a blue whale skeleton as the highlight of its collection. Several of us Sci/Why writers were delighted to visit the collection and take photographs as we admired the blue whale skeleton. But mounted skeletons don't just happen quickly or easily. (If you're interested, you can click on this link to read a series of tweets about a smaller whale being prepared for display on Vancouver Island.) The town of Trout River would never be able to afford the work it would take to prepare their own blue whale skeleton for their own little museum. What was to be done?
Meanwhile, the dead whales began to stink, and to swell up with gas. There's a photo at this link showing how the slim body of one whale has swelled till it looks ready to pop. It was a lucky thing when the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto approached the towns of Trout River and Rocky Harbour about taking the whales for their museum.
It took big boats and teams of scientists and workers, but they managed to get the whale bodies away from the towns. The bones were packed in boxes to be cleaned. There was no explosion for the team of workers to deal with, because the whales had already released a lot of their stinky gases before being cut apart. Yes, the stinky gases were released the same way a lot of stinky gases get released by living animals... and whale scientists were able to discuss whale farts with journalists who were glad to have the good news to share around the world.