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Why Does a Decomposing Whale Explode?

The small town of Trout River, Newfoundland, has a big problem: a dead blue whale stranded on one of its beaches.

Experts are scrambling to find a way to dispose of the 380,000-pound (170,000-kilogram) corpse before gases generated by its decomposing body cause it to explode.

A photo of a bloated whale in Newfoundland.
The bloated whale is seen on April 30 in Trout River, Canada. Photograph by Don Bradshaw, NTV News

News of the bulging behemoth has gone viral, with hundreds of news articles and the creation of the hashtag #explodingwhale and the website Has the Whale Exploded Yet?

But no one knows when the whale’s going to blow, if at all. Don Bradshaw, a reporter for Newfoundland station NTV News, has tweeted that the gas inside the whale has begun to naturally deflate.

National Geographic spoke to the exploding-whale website’s founder, Andrew David Thaler, a marine biologist who also runs the blog Southern Fried Science, to learn more about the phenomenon of exploding beached whales.

How frequently do dead whales end up on beaches?

Marine mammal strandings, either alive or dead, are not particularly uncommon. [Strandings of] big whales, like blue whales, are much more rare simply because there are very few blue whales left [in the world]. (Explore National Geographic’s blue whale interactive.)

A composite photo of a whale bloated and deflating
The whale is seen bloated with gas (left) and a more recent picture of it slowly deflating. Photographs by Don Bradshaw, NTV

What would cause a whale to explode?

Gas builds up as the animal’s viscera and stomach contents decompose, but whale skin and blubber are tough. The massive throat pouch that you see inflating in all the pictures is designed to fill with seawater and then force it out through baleen [the keratin plate that whales use to filter food]. It can handle a lot of pressure.

[Usually what] causes whales to explode is people doing stuff to them, either from bystanders trying to climb on or take a souvenir from the carcass, crews trying to move the carcass, or, in the case of the Faroes exploding sperm whale, intentionally degassing it (graphic video). That’s one very good reason you should never approach a dead-whale carcass.

If the whale died in the ocean, what would happen to its body?

When a whale dies at sea, it will eventually sink. Whales are so big that scavengers aren’t able to tear the carcass apart, so they often arrive on the seafloor intact. The deep sea is generally a pretty low-energy environment, so an entire whale represents a massive influx of food. (Related: “Dead Whale Contains a Bounty of Life.”)

A photo of a bloated whale in Newfoundland.
The whale seen on April 27. Photograph by Don Bradshaw, NTV News

Entire communities grow around these “whalefalls.” First the mobile scavengers—large deep-sea sharks, hagfish, and others—come in to remove soft tissue and break apart the carcass. Later, creatures like Osedax mucofloris, the bone-eating worm, arrive to slowly break down the bones. (Watch an animated video of the phases of a whalefall.)

This entire process can take 30 years or more, so the afterlife of a whale is as ecologically significant as its natural life.

What are a community’s options to dispose of a beached whale’s dead body?

The best option is usually to bury it on site. If that is not possible, removal is a challenging proposition. Whales are huge, and bringing in major earth moving equipment in some cases can be more destructive to the shoreline than just leaving the whale to decompose naturally. (Related: “A New, More Humane Way to Euthanize Stranded Whales.”)

News reports say that residents were complaining about the smell. What exactly does dead, bloated whale smell like?

Imagine a jar of bacon grease that you leave out in the sun for weeks. Now imagine that odor is so potent that it clings to everything you own. It gets in your sinuses and stays there for days afterward. I participated in the necropsy of a right whale about six years ago and my chest-waders still smell faintly like that day. Decomposing whale is one of the worst smells in the world.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Follow Carrie Arnold on Twitter and Google+.

Comments

  1. lala
    nowere
    May 21, 10:00 am

    this was cool

  2. robertbruedle
    farmington new hampshire
    May 20, 1:06 pm

    exploding whales are doper than dope in a fridge to keep it fresh

  3. JOHN
    May 16, 5:31 pm

    how about trying to burn it? Will it remove the smell totally? :3

  4. Derek
    BC
    May 7, 1:25 am

    The moment I saw this story on the news, I thought this sucker is probably too big to get towed out.

    Here’s a crazy idea. How about securing it with more of those boulders towards the shore and then tarping it with the fabric we use to tarp the manure piles.

    Encourage decomposition under the tarp and capture the gas in a small anaerobic digester. Use the power that’s generated from the facility for a small visitor center and exhibition on site.

    Surely the story will attract visitors from everywhere now. Build a unique structure to display and educate about whales in general.

    With the publicity, the town may find a sponsor for the digester and maybe even for the venue itself. It’s not quite Drumheller but has the potential to be the foundation for a new cool whale research station.

    The town should look at the opportunity and seek Canadian ingenuity and entrepreneurship. Some federal monies should flow their way as well in a private / public venture.

    It can be done!

  5. HI
    USA
    May 6, 9:53 pm

    This will sure smell bad :(

  6. Patrick Han
    CA torrence
    May 6, 9:50 pm

    OMG i saw this whale in the news and it exploded and it was super gross

  7. nana
    indonesia
    May 6, 1:57 am

    what a pity

  8. KC
    Toronto(greater), Canada
    May 5, 9:37 pm

    It’s a Whale! Big, heavy fish that’s lifeless. Tow boat is no option; Cut up by a butcher No Corporation/Man is going to pay for this. It’s destined to stink & rot because that’s what human beings do to the Ocean’s life

  9. ivan
    chile
    May 5, 8:47 pm

    one could use the Osedax antarticus bacteria to avoid this problem?

  10. Gian Toyos
    Puerto Rico
    May 5, 7:57 pm

    @ Kimiko & @Carrie Arnold – Autopsies on marine mammals (whales, dolphins, manatees, seals, sea lions…) are performed almost on a daily basis around the world, that job is done by scientists working at Stranding Networks. In most cases the carcasses are not transported to museums or labs, the necropsies are performed on the field since the animals are too big or too decomposed.

    To answer some of the other questions or suggestions given above, there are many options, there are complete manuals (google – Geraci’s Marine Mammals Ashore) dedicated to describe the protocols to follow when a marine mammal appears stranded, which as you know are protected by federal and state laws (even when dead).

    Ideally after a necropsy you would remove all the flesh and save the bones for further studies or education. We tried using a chainsaw to cut and dispose of a dead humpback whale…the chain broke, firing bullets to let the gas escape – don’t think so. Maybe there are cranes or ships big enough to tow them, but the problem is finding a rope/chain/cable and/or hooks strong enough to drag it…this animals are big, so big that when they are out of the water their own wait under the pressure of gravity will kill them.

    In this case, based on the pictures I have seen, if the smell is a big problem they should cover the carcass with a lot of sand or dig a hole and bury it. The problem is that the process of decomposition will be slowed down…best thing to do, leave it where it is and restrict the access to the area.

  11. Kimberly
    May 5, 7:46 pm

    I live an hr or so away guys and this whale got caught in ice a few weeks ago it killed 9 of them this is 1 of three that washed up! Do your research! And don’t be so disrespectful. The word is to give them to a museum in Ontario

  12. Linda
    USA
    May 5, 6:43 pm

    Why don’t they fire a bullet that makes the outgoing hole bigger and fire it toward the water. It would relieve the pressure

  13. Robert Botts
    Canada
    May 5, 2:58 pm

    They’ve tried towing some smaller whales to sea and anchoring them to the seafloor, however, the decomposing whales broke free in a storm and washed up back on shore… not in the exact same place, but near enough that the problem didn’t go away, but became more complex, because it forced another community/jurisdiction to become involved.

    Previous whale projects weren’t without their problems and can be expensive.

    This one occurred not far from the family homestead… the smell was stuff of legends.
    http://www.beatymuseum.ubc.ca/blue-whale-project

  14. aitor
    May 5, 1:55 pm

    ES MAZO DE GRANDE!!!!!!!!!!

  15. Oscar
    Nigeria
    May 5, 1:35 pm

    To me, the best option is to cut the carcass into pieces, and throw them into the sea as food for sea creatures.
    Towing the carcass to sea I think isn’t a good idea because, if trying to tow, the body will scatter making it more difficult to handle.

  16. Breezy peas
    USA Arizona
    May 5, 12:18 pm

    The people who thought this whale was actually going to explode are so unaware of animals and sealife. More people need to realize that animals like this were probably killed in an accident caused by humans, and it should be carried to the ocean where it can sink. It makes me scared to think that generations upon generations away our descendants will not know what it’s like to live in the same world as whales, and we will be to blame.

    • Carrie Arnold
      May 5, 1:26 pm

      It’s a really good point- many species of whale are endangered, and human activities are definitely contributing to that in a big way. Whether human behaviors contributed to the specific deaths of these whales is yet unclear, but you’re right- it is sad to think about living in a world without such magnificent creatures.

  17. Mark Finne
    May 5, 11:30 am

    Who weighed it?

    • Carrie Arnold
      May 5, 1:28 pm

      I’m not sure if anyone has weighed it yet, but I’ll let you know if they do!

  18. Jav1967
    May 5, 7:20 am

    Tasteless sushi

  19. Hamza Adzemovic
    May 5, 5:21 am

    I think it’s beacuse of Narwhals

  20. Davie Mururi
    Nairobi
    May 5, 3:34 am

    Amazed by the facts.

  21. Kreig
    MooN
    May 5, 3:09 am

    Can’t you just blow it up with explosives? Or set it ablaze with fuels and stuff? Bury it? Air lift it somewhere? Poke it? Just saying….

    • Carrie Arnold
      May 5, 1:31 pm

      They tried doing that in Oregon and the results were…messy. My fiance’s family got to witness the spectacle, and the stories are family legend. You can see a YouTube video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBgThvB_IDQ

      As for burning it, I’m guessing the smells would be hugely problematic. Charred rancid blubber? Yick. And it’s hard to get the proper equipment to lift something as big as a whale or dig a hole big enough. It’s a massive engineering problem! But you’re not alone in developing those solutions. :)

  22. Az
    USA
    May 5, 3:04 am

    I think the best idea would be to drag the whale to sea and anchor it down. why is this not a possible solution?

    • Carrie Arnold
      May 5, 1:32 pm

      Remember the last line in Jaws, about the one where they will need a bigger boat? That’s the problem: there aren’t any boats big enough to transport the whale, or even drag it through the water. But not a bad idea!

  23. TSC
    Philippines
    May 5, 2:09 am

    @JW It’s a 170 ton guy, it’ll be very hard for local equipment to do so

  24. Radhika
    Seychelles
    May 5, 12:34 am

    Same question as JW. Can what happens in nature not be replicated?

  25. JonW
    North Carolina
    May 5, 12:10 am

    @JW I was wondering the same thing. It seems to me that something as simple as a tugboat and some cable could solve this problem. Sinking might still get messy but at least the impact on the community would be minimized.

  26. Edwin Cuna
    U.S.A.
    May 4, 11:57 pm

    Let the Japanese whale trawler remove the carcass: they are expert in catching whales and also they are resuming their research on whales.

  27. Dr jagtap
    pimpri chinchwad
    May 4, 11:37 pm

    Is it possible biodegradable insects earthworms & magots may degrade t whales

    • Carrie Arnold
      May 5, 1:34 pm

      Over time, yes. But whales are very large and earthworms and maggots are very small. So it could take years to break it down. When a whale dies at sea and falls to the bottom of the ocean, it creates a feast for deep sea life that can last for years.

  28. Kimiko
    Australia
    May 4, 11:33 pm

    I’m wondering how often autopsy is done on these stranded mammals. These corpse could provide us the chances to study if they died simply from old age or other causes.

    • Carrie Arnold
      May 5, 1:34 pm

      I was wondering that myself. I’m guessing researchers will do a necropsy on the whale when it gets to the museum so they can determine cause of death and other aspects of the whale’s biology.

  29. Raymond Williamson
    Colorado
    May 4, 11:31 pm

    Why couldn’t it be towed out to sea, by a couple of towboats,??

  30. joe
    May 4, 11:03 pm

    get some local prisoners to come degas it then cut it up pound by pound, lol. or secure it via kevlar tarp to a few tug boats and haul it the f out. come on it’s 2014 we’re about to go to mars how hard can it be geez

  31. Starbukk
    Newfoundland
    May 4, 10:20 pm

    The whale is heavy and decomposing so I would expect it to come apart at any attempt to move it.

  32. Tom
    B.C
    May 4, 10:14 pm

    Why not pull it out to sea and sink it to the bottom for food for the others? Isn’t that what hapes Naturally?

  33. Sherry
    California
    May 4, 10:13 pm

    Is this possible to cut the whale into smaller pieces, so their moving around gets easier? We can then dump the pieces into the sea to decompose while the neighborhood residents don’t have to bear the smell for years.

  34. Meagan
    Toronto, Ontario, Canada
    May 4, 10:07 pm

    I agree with JW. Why don’t we just tow it out to sea?

  35. Gavin Gamache
    Canada
    May 4, 9:22 pm

    @JW: The whale’s body is just not strong enough to support its own weight being dragged across a beach; it would come apart. Whales are too massive to exist without the buoyancy of being surrounded by water.

  36. Dave Smith
    London, UK
    May 4, 9:19 pm

    What about chopping it up with the assistance of a fishmonger / butcher and scattering the pieces out to sea in more manageable sizes? It’s a win for the ecosystem and the residents will no longer have to put up with the smell…

  37. Stormbow
    USA
    May 4, 9:17 pm

    Not possible. Whatever was tied to the whale would either tear pieces of the whale off (the decomposing tale, for example) or slice right through the flesh (the midsection of the body, if any sort of tether was capable of being placed around it). In either case, you’d have 2 giant pieces of whale instead of one.

  38. Rodney
    United States
    May 4, 9:07 pm

    Because it weighs 380,000 pounds, JW. That’s a lot of dead weight if you know what I mean.

  39. Jasmine Syedda
    USA
    May 4, 2:56 pm

    With all of the people bothering the carcass it would probably explode before it finishes degassing. (Their own fault). I wondered how the whale ended up on the beach.

  40. TvFan
    Canada
    May 4, 1:10 pm

    JW- excellent solution. I just wonder if it wouldn’t break apart during the towing process?

  41. nandita
    india
    May 4, 8:20 am

    how to get a job in travel and living? tell me how !! i have searched everywhere but could find anything useful -_-

  42. Ima Ryma
    May 3, 4:55 am

    1970 – a dead whale,
    Bloated on an Oregon beach.
    Bureaucrats opted to avail
    Of dynamite – the end to reach
    Of out of sight then out of mind.
    The manmade blast blew blubber on
    All of the amassed humankind.
    The thrill and excitement were gone.
    But lots of the carcass remained,
    Now still more of a stinkaroo.
    Bureaucrats regrouped and rebrained,
    For health and safety – what to do.

    Oregon banned blowing up, and
    Bury dead beached whales in the sand.

  43. Angela bell
    Australia
    May 3, 4:48 am

    its more logical to tow it out to deep water and let nature do its job food for all the sea creatures its Recycling really not Rocket science ……

  44. Dwayne LaGrou
    Lapeer, Michigan
    May 2, 9:27 pm

    The problem with what you suggest is that the weight of the whale combined with the suction holding it to the ground and the fragile nature of the body usually prevents them from just wrapping something around it and dragging it away. Just imagine it weighing about 150 to 200 tons with the sand wrapped around the bottom of it and the water preventing any air from getting under it. It’s like trying to drag a garbage bag full of pumpkin guts, A very difficult task !!!

  45. JW
    USA
    May 2, 4:26 pm

    Is it not possible to wait for it to degas and tow it out to sea and release it? This would remove the carcass from the shoreline and would create a “whalefall” ecosystem on the ocean floor at that site. It’s a win for everyone.