Twenty thousand pounds of rotting whale never smells good. But thanks to ideal weather conditions on Oregon's Ophir Beach, there was only a faint, nose-crinkling whiff of death in the air when a giant blue whale carcass washed up last week.
Here at Earth Touch, we're no strangers to whale demolition duty, so when news of the blue behemoth surfaced, we hit the beach to find out how the dismantling process was coming along.
Upon our arrival, Oregon State University marine mammal biologist Dr Bruce Mate and his team had managed to strip most of the blubber from the 78-foot (23.77 metre), 20-ton carcass, and were burning it in a nearby pit to reduce the amount of flesh needing burial.
In the 47 years that Mate has been studying marine mammals in Oregon, not a single blue whale has washed up like this. "It might be the first one ever," he says.
The oily blubber was so thick that the team's large knives needed constant resharpening, but amazingly, it can be much thicker. "This animal is actually quite emaciated," explains Mate. "It has very little blubber, which is probably a contributing cause to its death. We don’t know if it’s disease or predation."
As other outlets have reported, the whale suffered injuries from both sharks and killer whales, but it's possible the bites occurred after it died, given the animal's general health.
Blue whales are endangered, with only an estimated one percent of the pre-whaling population remaining today. But each summer, an impressive congregation of these long-living ocean giants cruises America's Pacific coastline to feast on krill before heading south for winter.
"This [whale] is one of 2,300-2,500 blue whales that can be found here in the eastern North Pacific," says Mate. "That's about a quarter of all the blue whales in the world. But they're typically found [far] offshore."
And yet it's likely that this particular individual died within ten miles of Ophir beach, driven closer by unusually warm water. That would explain why the whale's remains washed onto land instead of disappearing into the murky ocean depths like most large carcasses.
"These animals have had a rough couple of years," says Mate. "A warm water blob has formed in the area, and now we've got a strong El Niño moving through. I doubt we’ll see any calves for the next three to four years."
The blue also appeared to have suffered a massive skull fracture, which could only be caused by ship strike. Whether or not the blow occurred before or after the whale's death remains a mystery.
With lifespans that stretch up to 90 years, these animals can grow to enormous sizes – the biggest one on record was 103 feet (31 metres) long. While not quite as massive, the Oregon whale was still an average size for an adult male in the Northern Hemisphere, and therefore probably of an impressive age.
The next step will be to cart the mammoth skeleton north to the town of Newport, where it will eventually be displayed at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. But the work is far from over. Most museums clean their specimens using dermestid beetles, whose larvae have a particular taste for flesh. They're delicate feeders, able to clean even the tightest places in a skeleton without damaging the precious bones. In order to clean a skeleton this size, however, the team would need an unfathomably large colony.
"And beetles probably wouldn't even eat this meat," adds Mate. "Whales actually accumulate a lot of bad stuff [harmful bacteria and toxins] so the larvae would likely avoid it."
To work around this problem, Mate's plan is to submerge the skeleton in the nearby Yaquina Bay, where small crustaceans like mysid shrimp (far less picky foragers) can have their way with it. After that, the team can begin the long process of putting the skeleton back together.
When asked how long the process could take, Mate simply chuckled. "Well ... the new building, which we plan to display the skeleton in, opens in 2018." While the whale's untimely death might strike you as sad, the skeleton will offer up a unique learning opportunity for future students and locals alike.
"You really can't get a feel for how big these animals are until you're right there with one," adds Earth Touch staffer Andy Jeffrey, who was also on the scene. "I knew it would be big, but it was jaw dropping. Photos just can't do it justice. The fact that they can be even bigger than this one is hard to imagine."
And check out this amazing drone footage by Bud Guinn, shot the day the whale beached:
Top header image: Charlavail/Used with permission