A dead whale on its way down Vanguard Drive to a landfill in Cape Town

Article: New York Times on a beached fin whale

We’ve been considering marine mammal strandings for the past few days. This is a hard subject, but it’s important to think clearly about it, and, as a coastal resident, to be in possesion of some salient facts.

Just after Christmas last year the New York Times City Room regional blog reported on a fin whale that had beached itself at Breezy Point on the shores of Queens in New York city. Fin whales are the second largest species of whale after blue whales, and are endangered. The whale was 20 metres long and estimated to weigh 30 tons. When the animal arrived on the shore it was extremely underweight (it should have weighed about 50-60 tons for its length), but still alive.

The difficulties of assisting whales that beach themselves are made clear here, as well as the reason why whales are not typically euthanased using drugs. The quantity of medication required to put a 30 ton creature out of its misery would create a carcass that was a toxic hazard and would allow limited means of safe disposal.

A follow up article states that the whale had died, and that an open air necropsy would be performed. This would hopefully reveal whether the whale had died of old age, or from other causes such as parasites, ingesting plastic, or a ship strike. A third article describing the necropsy mentions unexplained lesions on the whale’s kidneys and stomach. The whale was male and there was no evidence that he’d been struck by a ship.

A dead whale on its way down Vanguard Drive to a landfill in Cape Town
A dead whale on its way down Vanguard Drive to a landfill in Cape Town

Disposing of whale carcasses is sometimes controversial. They are typically buried on the beach, or (in Cape Town) taken to a landfill. Beach burial is one way of returning the nutrients in the whale’s body to the earth, but unfortunately not a good idea in locations frequented by sharks and swimmers. Oils from the whale’s carcass leach out into the sand, attracting predators inshore where accidental encounters with humans can be expected.

Ideally, the whale should be dragged out to sea and left there to sink to the bottom and create an ecosystem as a whale fall, but there are the considerations of it causing a hazard to shipping, or washing ashore again (a particular issue in False Bay, where we have onshore winds in summer). Blowing up a whale is non-trivial, dangerous, expensive, and messy. It’s also not kind to the environment. YouTube has several videos demonstrating this.

The first City Room article can be found here. The second, reporting on the death of the whale, is here. The article reporting on its necropsy and subsequent burial is here.

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Clare

Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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