When a pungent 40-foot whale carcass washed up a few beaches away, Stefanie Worwag and Mario Rivera did what any good neighbours would do. They invited the blubbery bottom feeder into the neighbourhood and put him up in their backyard.
Then Ms Worwag cut him open.
Ms Worwag, a veterinarian, said she and her husband volunteered to host the dead whale on their Port Hadlock, Washington, property amid a spike in West Coast whale strandings that has researchers asking where they can put all the beached beasts.
“It’s a heck of a learning experience,” said Mr Rivera, a retired police officer. The couple has been watching the whale deflate ever so slightly each day since it was towed to their stretch of shoreline earlier this month.
The quandary of what to do with whale corpses has troubled coastal populations for decades and has inspired some novel methods for disposing of the behemoths. States have tried burying them on beaches, dumping them in landfills, sinking them at sea, and on one notable occasion that was caught on camera, blowing them up with dynamite, which sent rancid chunks of whale raining down on spectators.
As a striking number of grey whale carcasses have floated onto West Coast beaches in recent months, the National Marine Fisheries Service has begun asking private landowners to let them decay on their property. A half-dozen Washington residents have already volunteered possible resting places for the giant mammals, which can be as long as a semitrailer and weigh up to 45 tonnes.
Of the 77 dead whales that have beached along the Pacific Coast so far this year, 30 have come ashore in Washington, the most in nearly two decades. The fisheries service is now investigating the surge in whale beachings, which has overwhelmed the researchers who respond to them.
The researchers try to move the whales to places where they can conduct necropsies and then leave the carcass to decay naturally, a process that can take a year or more. But the state of Washington is running out of places to let that happen, especially for whales that wash up on the shores of Puget Sound.
“You can only tow a whale so far,” said Hilary Franz, Washington’s commissioner of public lands. “We’re running out of space, and we’re also running out of easy, simple answers of where to have them decompose.”
Even moving the carcasses a short distance can be a huge undertaking. For the whale that came to stay with Ms Worwag and Mr Rivera, the trip of just over 3 miles from its original beaching point took several hours.
First, the carcass had to be secured around the peduncle, the portion of a whale’s body that tapers back to the fluke. Then researchers used a rigid-hulled inflatable boat to tow the whale, tail-first and very slowly.
John Calambokidis, a senior research biologist at Cascadia Research Collective who was on board for the slow tow, said that the rise in beachings must be monitored closely, but it is not necessarily a bad sign for the grey whales. To the contrary, he said, it could be a side effect of the species’ recent rebound.
Grey whales in the eastern North Pacific were removed from the federal endangered-species list in 1994. Over the next six years, the population dipped to about 16,000, but since then it has surged to about 27,000, according to estimates by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Climate change may play a role, just as warming sea temperatures and the loss of ice cover in the Arctic have affected other sea life, Mr Calambokidis said, but it is also possible that the grey whales have simply overpopulated the area and are not finding enough food.
“Part of the question will be, how long does this continue?” he said. “Do they show a similar recovery as they did after 2000?”
Mr Calambokidis, who has been responding to whale strandings for more than 40 years, said he has seen whale carcasses loaded on flatbed trucks, thrown in dumpsters, buried where they land, sunk in the ocean and just about everything else. Some disposal methods have been more successful than others.
It was the Oregon state Highway Department that tried the dynamite idea. A whale carcass had washed up in 1970 near the city of Florence, and the rotting smell quickly became a problem. State transportation officials decided the thing to do was to detonate 20 cases of dynamite under the whale, hoping to blast the whole thing into small pieces that could be eaten by sea gulls. It did not quite work out as expected.
“The blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds,” a television reporter, Paul Linnman of KATU, said in a report on the explosion that has since been posted on YouTube. Onlookers were covered in blubber, and a car was smashed by flying pieces of whale meat, but much of the carcass did not go anywhere. It was eventually buried.
Ms Worwag and Mr Rivera say they enjoy accommodating their new guest, but federal officials caution that hosting a massive whale carcass is not for everyone. The couple has an ideal property for the purpose, with a secluded beachfront, a steep embankment to help contain the smell and only one close neighbour (who gave approval).
Michael Milstein, a spokesperson for the fisheries service, said he hoped potential hosts would look to the couple’s experience as they decide whether they can handle a big one of their own.
“It’s kind of hard to find spots to put a 40-foot whale,” Mr Milstein said. “We want people to go into this with open eyes and know what they’re getting into.”
The New York Times