Barbie Halaska, (C) necropsy manager with The Marine Mammal Center, talks to beachgoers about a dead juvenile gray whale on Limantour Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore on May 25, 2019 in Point Reyes Station, California. Scientists with The Marine Mammal Center examined the 13th gray whale that washed up dead on a San Francisco Bay Area beach to try and determine what is killing the whales. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
At least 13 dead gray whales have washed ashore in the Bay Area over the past few months, and at least 70 have made their way onto land all along the Pacific coast. It's likely that the real number of dead whales is much higher, as current estimates indicate that just about 1 out of every 10 dead whales wash up on the shore (the remaining sink to the bottom of the seafloor).
Some of the whales have been killed when they were hit by boats, and many have shown signs of severe malnutrition. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has convened a special study group to investigate if this grouping of deaths is part of a natural cycle or caused by an emerging threat, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein has linked the strandings to human-caused climate change.
What Is Going On With the Whales?
Reports of dead whales understandably prompt sadness and mourning among marine biologists and the public. But with bodies of these creatures stretching 40 to 50 feet and weighing in at about the size of two large school buses, whale beachings also pose practical concerns.
Sarah Belle Lin asked Bay Curious, "What has happened to the dead bodies of the whales washing up on Bay Area shorelines?"
Your Beach, Your Whale
Once upon a time, a whale washed upon the shore would remain there. As its body decomposed it would provide a wealth of nutrition both to land scavengers — including condors and grizzly bears — and to scavengers from the sea, such as crabs. The bodies of some modern whales are allowed to decompose naturally on the beach in this way, feeding the onshore and nearshore ecosystems.
But most dead whales find a different final resting place.
When possible, the whale is towed by boat to a remote beach on Angel Island, generally under the direction of biologists from the Marine Mammal Center and the California Academy of Sciences. There, veterinarians conduct a necropsy (an autopsy on an animal) to attempt to determine the cause of death by looking for cuts or evidence of bruises. They may also take samples from the carcass to look for toxins or pollutants.
On this beach, west of Point Blunt, the whale can naturally return to nature. The area is inaccessible to the public and off limits to boats that don't have the right permits.
If towing to Angel Island is impractical, the necropsy may be done where the whale is found. The responsibility for the body's disposal lies with whoever has jurisdiction over the beach where it was found.
In other words: your beach, your dead whale.
If the municipality does not want the whale to stay — the smell alone is generally enough to keep people off the beach — they must decide, in conjunction with NOAA, the most practical means of getting rid of it.
In some cases that means burying it beneath the sand. In some cases it means towing the whale out to sea, where it will sink to the bottom of the ocean. However sometimes the body floats at the surface, full of decomposing gasses, for weeks. (These whales sometimes pop once the gasses build up to a critical level.)
The Army Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard or a private boat contractor may do the towing, depending on where the animal is found and which agencies have resources available at that time.
If a whale is towed out to sea from San Francisco Bay, it may need to be brought out past the Farallon Islands to prevent ocean currents from sweeping it back on shore. NOAA provides the permits and technical advice on how to do this, as all whales found off the Pacific Coast are protected by federal laws.
Lose a Whale, Find a Worm
Whale carcasses have also been used for research.
For more than a decade in Monterey Bay, scientists intentionally sank the bodies of whales at varying depths to study the organisms that fed upon them on the ocean floor.
It started in 2002 when Robert Vrijenhoek and Shana Goffredi, of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute discovered a whale decomposing on the seafloor while exploring the underwater Monterey Canyon with a remotely operated vehicle. What caught their attention though were the bones covered in what looked like "red shag carpeting."
They, along with Craig Smith from the University of Hawaii who has studied dead whales for decades, began a series of experiments over several years. They towed whale carcasses to varying depths, sank them and tracked the communities of organisms that grew on them.
The "red shag carpeting" turned out to be a new genus of worms — slimy and eyeless — that specialize on eating bones. This kicked off 15 years of research and the discovery of more than a dozen new species of worms (genus Osedax) in Monterey Bay.
Not all whales have had such a peaceful return to nature.
In 1970, the Oregon Highway Division (now the Oregon Department of Transportation) had a dead sperm whale on its hands along the state's southern coast. It had been dead for some time, and the stink was becoming unbearable.
Their solution: explode it with a half-ton of dynamite. The hope was that this would break the animal into small pieces, blasting it toward the ocean and encouraging scavengers, such as seagulls, to take it away.
"Needless to say, it didn’t go well," Ed Schoaps, the public affairs coordinator for Oregon’s Department of Transportation told the fact-checking website Snopes in 2000. "The blast pulverized only part of the whale, sending pieces soaring — not toward the ocean, as planned, but toward people watching from the dunes."
A large piece of blubber soared a quarter-mile through the air and smashed a Buick. Onlookers, including a local TV news reporter, were showered by small pieces of foul-smelling flesh. Fortunately no one was hurt.
Unfortunately, however, only part of the whale was blown up. The rest still had to be disposed of, and was buried by crews. There have been no further reports of municipalities attempting to dispose of whale carcasses by dynamite.