Benjamin Javitz - Authorbenjamin.firstname.lastname@example.org
Rebecka Ingram - Illustratorrebecka.email@example.com
Benjamin Javitz - Illustratorbenjamin.firstname.lastname@example.org
“Half a ton of dynamite. I'm confident that it'll work! The only thing is.. we're not sure just exactly how much explosives it'll take to disintegrate this thing.”
“What to do when an eight-ton whale washes up on a beach? The carcass couldn't be buried because it might soon be uncovered again. It couldn't be cut up and then buried because nobody wanted to cut it up - and it couldn't be burned either! The humor of the entire situation suddenly gave way to a run for survival as huge chunks of whale blubber fell everywhere. The blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds. Everyone on the scene was covered with small particles of dead whale. Should a whale ever wash ashore again, those in charge will not only remember what to do - they'll certainly remember what not to do.” This is how news reporter Paul Linnman described the events that transpired on a small beach in Oregon in the US in November 1970 in a legendary piece of TV history.
Believe it or not, when whale carcasses combust on charming coastlines around the world, it’s actually not an unusual event - hundreds and hundreds of toothed, sperm, humpback, blue whales and even dolphins wash up, or “beach”, each year. Just last year, the municipalityof Mörbylånga on Öland started warning beachgoers not to get too close to the decomposing cetaceans because of the risk they might explode. According to Wikipedia, microorganisms soon after death begin to digest the tissues of the body, excreting gases that cause the corpse to bloat. And of course, big chunks of dead whale raining down on tourists isn’t particularly desirable. This is also why people working with these huge ticking time bombs have to wear protective gear.
One of these daredevils is Darlene Ketten, a marine biologist nicknamed Dr. Doom, frequently gets called whenever it is unclear why a whale or even an entire pod of whales beached. Figuring out why these whales unwillingly find themselves sunbathing is actually really really difficult. Sometimes the reason can be obvious and entirely human-made: hit by a ship, entangled in fishing nets or a diet consisting mostly of big pieces of ocean plastic. Other times, it’s a harder puzzle to solve. Whales communicate and orient themselves using echolocation, low- and high-frequency noises. Weather, wind, waves - a lot of things make sounds that can confuse these beautiful giants, and lead them into dangerous waters by accident. This has been happening naturally for millions of years but, you guessed it, humans are also pretty inconsiderate when it comes to how much noise they make out on the ocean: military and fishing boats use sonar, underwater construction produces massive noise pollution and the odd cruise ship motor can turn from mildly annoying to dangerous. Whales can also get sick and infect each other, just like other mammals. Algal blooms, which is when algae populations explode due to a surplus of nutrients in the water, also happen both naturally as well as caused by fertilizers from human agriculture and other chemicals. They block sunlight, deplete the oxygen in our oceans and can even secrete toxins that can be harmful to whales. And when whales feel threatened or are being hunted, the panic can drive them into shallow waters, where their echolocation doesn’t work as well.
And then there’s the big one, of course. The blue whale of environmental catastrophes: climate change. Destroying habitats of smaller animals, changing and disrupting ecosystems means less food for bigger creatures. And less food means more death. It’s obvious that there are so many different factors that can lead to beachings that it’s hard work for Dr. Doom to figure out why a particular whale died. In a podcast interview with Vox.com, she said “It really is a forensics problem. We do the best job we can but sometimes it's an unsolved case. Only about 50 percent of the time, if that much, we can give you a solid answer of why that animal died and why it's stranded.“ It’s like Law & Order, but for whales.
Whether the number of beachings on a large scale is increasing and whether that’s a good thing or not is, however, a debated topic. More whales die when populations are bigger and healthier, just because there are more of them. And more whales die when more human activity harms them. Fewer beachings might mean that we kill less of these majestic creatures, or that we have helped drive another species into extinction.
Back to blowing up bodies. Every corpse starts bloating after a while. Humans, whales, other majestic creatures on our beautiful planet. But whales are of course some of the biggest mammals on earth and with big size come big amounts of guts and organs that will often inflate the thick whale skin like a balloon. It is actually common practice to cut open beached whales to avoid obliterating innocent observers. Do not try this yourself though - in 2013, Bjarni Mikkelsen tried cutting into a whale that had washed ashore in the Faroe Islands, and it blew up in his face. He’s fine, don’t worry! And while this decomposition is quite a natural process, detonating whales with dynamite is apparently one of the ways authorities still use to get rid of beached animals. Most times, they drag them out to sea first though, where the whale guts won’t rain down on innocent bystanders.
So yeah, what have we learned? Whales sometimes die due to beaching, stranding on “our” shores like a missteered ship. When they do, they sometimes blow up and explode and their guts spill out. It’s the natural beauty of the circle of life. And as always, we humans seem unable to keep our hands out of the matter. Not only by blowing the bodies to bits afterwards but sometimes by causing cute dolphins to die in the first place. If you do encounter a dead whale on your next beach vacation, be careful of the behemoth body balloon. Don’t get too close or try to poke it, it might fire back. Call Dr. Doom instead.
Watch the full 1970 news report here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6CLumsir34