When a sperm whale washed up dead recently in the Shetland Islands, local scientists missed out on an opportunity to sample the remains. Swells funnelled the 15-metre (50ft) giant into a remote cove – and the carcass is now surrounded by unnavigable cliffs.

Staff at Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary (HWS) managed to film the whale floating near the foot of steep cliffs at Fethaland, which lies at the north tip of Shetland's mainland

"The Scottish Marine Stranding-Scheme team had sent out an alert, and we volunteered to go take photos for their database," they explain. "The huge male whale was decomposing and smelly, though this didn't seem to be putting off the gulls who were feeding on its remains."

This is a very remote corner of the islands, and much of the coastline is bordered by towering sea stacks. These vertical rock columns are formed by wave erosion, making them jagged and tricky to traverse. "There was no chance of taking samples as there was no route down the 40-metre-high cliff," says the team.

It's disappointing, no doubt – necropsies performed on dead whales can give us useful intel about their lives. 

Only a small number of whales that die at sea make it to shore; most descend to Davy Jones's locker long before scientists can get their hands on them. For a whale to hit land, for example, it has to expire close enough to shore (typically less than ten miles) to drift inland while its bloated body can still float. Factor in currents and offshore storms, and it's pretty incredible that we ever bump into these giant carcasses.

The state of this particular whale suggests it had been dead for some time. Several online commenters have speculated that the animal was an albino, but the depigmentation you see in the video is the result of normal decomposition, not a genetic mutation. Without access to those disintegrating tissues, it's impossible to accurately determine cause of death – but the body showed no obvious signs of ship strike or major injury. 

"It's unlikely to be going anywhere," says the team. "This was a sad and sorry end for such a magnificent creature, who will now provide food for many sea creatures over the next few weeks and months."


Top header image: Roberto Saltori/Flickr