18 Jul 2014

Exploding Whales!

By Paula Johanson

Whales are fascinating. Everything I can learn about whales makes whales more interesting to me -- from how deep they can dive to how they are descended from pig-like animals 70-million years ago. Any mention of whales in the news catches my attention. And when a grey whale was visiting the bay near my home one summer, I was thrilled to be able to see it feeding just off-shore. You can read about that day at this link which is for my paddle group's blog on kayaking.

There are plenty of whales in the news these day. The recent news from the Canadian government that humpback whales are increasing in numbers was good to learn, and you can read about it here; but because there are a few more humpbacks now, this species is no longer considered a "threatened" species in Canadian waters, only "a species of special concern." Are the whales being protected enough from people's activities in the whales' critical habitat? There's a map showing humpback whale habitat areas at this link. Meanwhile, here's an image from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to remind boat users to leave a lot of room for whales when we see them near our boats.

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.

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