When a massive whale carcass washed up on a Scottish shore on Saturday, beach-goers' first thoughts were to mourn the death of the majestic creature. Their second thought, though, was more tricky: How should they get rid of the massive body?
The carcass of a 13.8-meter sperm whale — that would be just over 45 feet — washed up on Scotland's Portobello beach on Saturday morning, fouling the air and water of the popular beach site. But because of its hefty size, the decomposing whale couldn't be removed that easily, and floated just above the shoreline for several days. Four full days of planning later, the startling photo above, taken by the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS), and tweeted by Sue Gyford.
Yes, that would be the tail of a massive whale sticking out of the top of a semi-truck on its trip away from the beach. The rest of the transport process required equally sizable resources. The whale had to first be towed to a nearby deep water harbor, lifted by a crane out of the ocean and into the 18-wheeler, and then was finally dropped off at the top of a landfill. There, marine scientists performed a necropsy. Decomposing garbage made for a unique operating table.
The images from Scotland underlined the problems beach areas have with dead whales: How the heck should you get rid of them?
The most (in)famous idea for removal came from Oregon in 1970, when "experts" stuck dynamite into a beached whale, hoping an explosion would completely disintegrate the body. Despite standing back a quarter mile, dangerous chunks of whale rained down on bystanders. As the news man covering the scene says, "The blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds." A car well behind the cameras was smashed by a flying piece of whale, and "everyone on the scene was covered with small particles of dead whale." Let's take this idea out of the possible solutions, then.
Similarly, burning or cremating the body is ineffective, both for its size and its high fat content. "Incineration isn't an option," the SMASS Facebook explains, "it's just too big."
Letting nature take its course works eventually, but a decomposing whale makes for a noxious smell for too long of a time. In a "whale fall," when dead whales drop to the bottom of the ocean, they can support an entire ecosystem for 50 to 100 years. Beached whales that remain in shallower waters decompose more quickly, a possibility that the Scottish marine experts considered but ultimately rejected. "Not an option here as it's too close to a major city but, an option in remote areas," the SMASS Facebook page explained.
Towing the watery mammal out to sea doesn't work either, as the carcass will likely wash up again in another location. That, or it can become a hazard for other boats.
A beached whale in Breezy Point, New York in late 2012 had to be buried in the same area it died, as it couldn't be moved. But getting rid of a whale body this way poses huge problems, like digging a hole of that size, lowering the whale, and keeping it buried through the rising and receding tides.
Uruguay took a different tack, transporting its beached whale to a landfill. That required a flatbed truck for driving the carcass across town.
But trucking a dead whale is dangerous. In Taiwan in 2004, a 60-ton whale being moved through the city spontaneously exploded, showering cars, buildings and passerby with decomposed guts. Ew.
Uruguay's transportation did not have that problem, but officials needed a tractor to carve out a hole big enough in the garbage-filled ground.
There, it will decompose eventually, replenishing the Earth with its nutrients. It's all part of the circle of life, but with dead whales, that's a freaking massive circle.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.