When a boat-sized carcass washes up on shore, there's a good chance those remains belong to a whale. Determining which leviathan you're looking at, though, can be a challenge – especially after decomposition sets in. And by the time this "mystery" creature turned up on a beach in the Philippines, it looked more like Falkor than any recognisable whale species. But its body holds clues that can tell us more. 

Image: Nujnuj Capistrano/Facebook 

The animal was found earlier this week near Maasin City, in the province of Southern Leyte. Perplexed by what appeared to be giant eyes and a dog-like snout, local resident Nujnuj Capistrano posted images of the "sea creature" online. Not surprisingly, the photos have since gone viral – and we have to admit, this particular carcass doesn't look very whale-like.

Comparative anatomist Dr Joy Reidenberg explains there's a good reason for this: parts of the whale's body have actually migrated due to extensive decay. In other words, mushy flesh has a habit of moving around, so this whale's face has gone full "Picasso".

(Extensive decomposition can easily cause a case of mistaken identity with dead whales: just last year, "furry" carcasses led locals in Scotland to believe that polar bears had turned up in the area.)

"What a mess!" says Reidenberg. "It looks like the blowhole is slipping down and to the right." Those "nostrils" you see at the front of the carcass are the blowhole openings, which would typically sit on top of the body along the dorsal ridge. 

With only photos to go on, the easiest way to tell dead whales apart is to look at the shape of the rostrum (the front of the head). Reidenberg, who has done extensive work on a variety of whale species, suspects that the Philippines "monster" is a grey whale.  

"[The snout is] rounded enough at tip to be a grey," she explains. "It's not big enough, or wide and flat enough, for a big rorqual – blue, fin, sei, Bryde's or Omura's whale. [It's also] too curved for a minke, and not curved enough for a right whale."

Reidenberg's ID is all the more interesting because grey whales are seldom seen in this area. In fact, so few exist in the Western Pacific that they're considered a critically endangered subpopulation by the IUCN.

Image: Nujnuj Capistrano/Facebook 
Image: Nujnuj Capistrano/Facebook 
Image: Nujnuj Capistrano/Facebook 

Grey whales inhabit both sides of the Pacific Ocean, but commercial whaling in the 19th and 20th centuries saw numbers dwindle to alarming lows off the coasts of Russia, Japan and China. To this day, very little is known about the survivors that remain in the region, including their migration routes and favourite stopovers. Based on past sightings, however, it's believed that western grey whales pass through the Sea of Japan en route to feeding and breeding grounds. Exactly how far south they go during such journeys remains a mystery.

Maasin City lies further south than the known hotspots for grey-whale sightings in the Philippines, such as the Babuyan Islands, but it's certainly plausible that one individual may have passed by in these parts. What's more, given the state of the carcass, it's likely that this particular whale had been drifting for some time after it died, which could explain its southerly final resting place. 



Top header image: Oregon State University/Flickr