The Eternal Life of Beached Whales
Sure, they stink, but when we hastily dispose of dead whales, we’re depriving myriad organisms and the coastal environment of the ecological gifts the carcasses deliver.
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This article was originally published in Nautilus, a science magazine that takes readers into the depths of science and spotlights its ripples in our lives and cultures.
When, at the dawn of the 19th century, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traversed western North America, they encountered a wondrous bestiary: the “fleet and delicately formed” coyote, the “bear of enormous size,” which we call the grizzly. Yet few creatures impressed them more than the “Buzzard or Vulture” their party captured near the mouth of the Columbia River. The bird was massive, more than 2.7 meters from wing tip to wing tip, and garish, with an “iris of a pale scarlet,” a “pale orrange [sic] Yellow” head, and feathers of “Glossy Shineing [sic] black.” Just as striking was the bird’s diet. “[W]e have Seen it feeding on the remains of the whale and other fish which have been thrown up by the waves on the Sea Coast,” Clark reported. Marine creatures, he added, “constitute their principal food.”
That Lewis and Clark first encountered a California condor by the sea was no coincidence. Once, condors soared across much of the continent, merrily scavenging dead ground sloths, mammoths, and glyptodonts. When human hunters wiped out these giant herbivores during the Pleistocene, condors nearly went extinct themselves. But they never quite vanished. Instead, they survived along the Pacific Coast, feasting on the last megafauna carcasses still available: marine mammals, particularly the blue, humpback, and gray whales who migrate along North America’s western rim. That we know Gymnogyps californianus as the California condor—as opposed to, say, the Kansas condor—is the nomenclatural legacy of dead cetaceans.
Whales, like wolves, elephants, and beavers, are keystone species, animals who disproportionately shape ecosystems. While alive, their fecal plumes fertilize plankton, the microscopic photosynthetic organisms that oxygenate our atmosphere. In death, whales who settle on the ocean floor attract an astonishing necrobiome, the community of scavengers who feed upon the dead: hagfish, mussels, limpets, isopods, sleeper sharks, chemosynthetic bacteria. Some, like bone-eating Osedax worms, subsist exclusively on benthic carcasses. Whale falls are oases in the abyssal wastes, as enticing to life as a Saharan watering hole. Not every dead whale, however, comes to rest in the depths.
Those whales who drift ashore—buoyed by internal gasses, conveyed by currents—support complex ecosystems of their own. Vultures and seabirds peck at eyes and blowholes; sharks strip blubber in the surf. In Namibia’s coastal desert region, jackals and hyenas gnaw at dead seal pups, dolphins, and whales. When, in 2020, a minke whale—nicknamed Godfried, for a beloved local author—washed ashore on a Dutch islet, he was visited by 57 species of beetle, 21 of whom had never been seen on the island before. In Russia, scientists have documented 180 polar bears feasting on a single bowhead.
Once, coastal necrophages could count on a steady supply of whale carcasses. (California’s famously huge grizzlies, now extinct, may have attained their gargantuan size by feeding upon the same marine mammals who supported condors.) Today, however, washed-up cetaceans are comparatively rare. In part, that’s because industrial whaling—“the largest removal of biomass in world history,” per one researcher—ravaged the leviathans. Blue whale populations have plummeted by up to 90 percent, and sperm whales endure at just one-third of their historic numbers. Scavengers can’t eat nonexistent animals.
But the dearth of whales isn’t entirely responsible for the dearth of whale carcasses. We humans also tend to be overzealous morticians. Rather than letting stranded animals fulfill their ancient roles, we hastily dispose of their remains, depriving coastal ecosystems of nature’s greatest windfall. As one group of scientists put it in a recent review of cetacean carcass management, whaling and whale-removal have together “led to radical changes in the abundance and availability of large marine biomass inputs.” In other words: our shorelines miss their whales and dolphins.
Lately, some researchers have begun to pay closer heed to the value of stranded whales, and to encourage coastal managers to let carcasses lie. Granted, not every beach is an appropriate resting place for a reeking, 22.7-tonne corpse. When circumstances allow, however, permitting dead whales to decompose in situ may be preferable to disposal. “Can we do better than the way we manage carcasses nowadays?” says Martina Quaggiotto, an ecologist at Scotland’s University of Stirling and the review’s lead author. “We are removing what is natural from a natural place.”
In 1979, a pod of 41 sperm whales stranded on an Oregon beach—“hemorrhaging under the crushing weight of their own flesh,” wrote Barry Lopez, who attended the spectacle. The whales, it was clear, couldn’t be saved, and the numinous visitation became a profane exercise in bureaucratic wrangling. What law enforcement agency should manage crowd control, which scientists should be in charge of obtaining tissue samples, and how would the state dispose of the corpses? “If buried, the carcasses would become hard envelopes of rotting flesh, the internal organs would liquefy and leach out onto the beach, and winter storms would uncover the whole mess,” Lopez cautioned. (Officials ultimately decided to burn the whales, then bury the charred remnants.) A dead cetacean on a public beach was no longer an ecological cog, but a logistical nightmare.
More than 40 years later, our management of dead whales is no more coherent. As Quaggiotto and her colleagues note, every country, state, and municipality obeys slightly different protocols. Some whales are carted off to the landfill, incinerator, or rendering plant, where their oily fats may be extracted for soaps, pet foods, and biofuel. Some are towed to sea, weighed down with scrap metal, and sunk. Some are buried. Some are cleaned for museum display. In 1970, the Oregon Highway Department infamously dynamited a gray whale, flattening an Oldsmobile beneath a chunk of flying blubber and leaving 75 bystanders flecked with putrescent meat. Detonation, needless to say, is no longer anyone’s preferred alternative.
In some cases removal is a matter of public safety, given that a dead whale is the world’s most alluring shark bait; even a buried cetacean may leach shark-beckoning plumes of carbon and ammonium into the ocean. Often, whales who strand alive are put out of their misery with pentobarbital, a drug that renders their bodies toxic long after death. In one horrifying incident, a two-year-old dog fell into a coma after it excavated blubber from a humpback who’d been euthanized three weeks earlier. (Today, many veterinarians prefer potassium chloride, which doesn’t leave behind dangerous residues.)
Mostly, whales are removed for a prosaic reason: they stink. The aroma of dead cetaceans has been described as “the worst garbage smell you can think of,” “death in a dumpster,” and “like a dead animal but multiply that by 10 and then add fish smell to that and then feces.” The journalist Sarah Gilman took a more literary tack: “a throatier version of seashore rot that tastes like backwash from a mildew-darkened garbage disposal.”
As a result, authorities seldom let carcasses lie. Some countries, like Belgium and France, actually require officials to usher dead cetaceans off to a waste-management facility. In the United States, Quaggiotto found that just 28 percent of cetacean carcasses remain in situ—nearly all of these, surely, on remote beaches in wildlife refuges, national parks, and Alaska. In heavily developed Florida, Megan Stolen, a stranding investigator and scientist with the Blue World Research Institute, estimates that less than five percent of dead whales and dolphins get to stay put. The removal of a bottlenose dolphin can be a tourist attraction as enticing as Walt Disney World’s Epcot park. “Daytona Beach during spring break on a Friday afternoon, that’s fun,” Stolen says wryly.
Our tendency to remove carcasses, however understandable, is problematic on a few levels. In Australia, disposing of a single small whale costs around US $14,000, and some large humpbacks have run more than $115,000. It’s also tremendously labor-intensive. Stolen’s team once elected to chop up and bury a humpback on Florida’s Melbourne Beach. Because heavy machinery would have destroyed sea turtle nests, they dug the immense grave by hand. “It was about eight hours of digging with a five-man crew,” Stolen recalls.
The refusal to let bodies be bodies has ecological implications, too. Deprived of coastal carrion, California condors have turned to the gut piles left behind by hunters, which are often tainted with bullet fragments; today lead poisoning accounts for half of known condor deaths. Similarly afflicted are Andean condors, the California condor’s cousins, whose three-meter wingspans shadow South America’s Pacific lip. Like their North American relatives, Andean condors once depended on coastal cuisine, then turned to cattle and other terrestrial carrion after industrial whaling eliminated their preferred repast. But it hasn’t been a smooth transition. To access their inland scavenging grounds on the Patagonian steppe, many condors must wing over the Andes, fight powerful headwinds, and traverse one of the wettest rainforests on Earth. Condors on the Pacific coast, scientists note, “expend more time and energy than their historical counterparts” hunting for carcasses, which, along with the coastal development that has overwhelmed prime foraging grounds, is among the reasons that they’re endangered throughout much of their range.
Nor are condors the only scavengers to get crowded out by humans. This was illustrated by a clever 2012 experiment, in which Australian researchers placed dead fish along two sets of beaches—some near towns, others in more rural areas. While fish on remote beaches were quickly claimed by native raptors such as whistling kites, the urban carcasses lingered much longer, and were only belatedly scavenged by nonnative foxes and rats. The implications were troubling: many coastal necrobiomes are too impoverished by people to take full advantage of carrion.
Yet letting scavengers feast can be fraught, too. In California, scientists typically necropsy cetaceans to ascertain their cause of death and collect bone and tissue samples. Sometimes, though, bodies wash up near nesting colonies of snowy plovers, threatened seabirds who lay their eggs in sandy hollows. Cutting open a whale on a plover beach, says Moe Flannery, a senior collections manager at the California Academy of Sciences who investigates cetacean strandings, risks attracting ravens, coyotes, and other scavengers, who might prey on plover eggs and chicks once they’re in the area. Some land managers prohibit necropsies near plover beaches altogether, even if performing one would theoretically benefit scavengers.
Plovers have always contended with predators and the carcasses that enticed them, of course—but today their populations, diminished by development, are more vulnerable to hungry mouths and beaks. We may wish to restore coastal necrobiomes, yet our broken world doesn’t always make it easy.
Millennia ago, humans were as dependent on whale carcasses as condors. Coastal Indigenous peoples around the planet—the Arawak, the Māori, the Inuit—exploited stranded cetaceans for food and tool material. In one Spanish cave occupied by humans some 14,000 years ago, researchers unearthed barnacles that grow only upon the skin of right whales, a molluskan testament to our ancestors’ scavenging prowess. To Patagonia’s Fuegians, each dead whale was a “great gift of nature.”
“For as long as there have been humans,” Rebecca Giggs points out in Fathoms, her meditation on cetaceans, “the whale has been a portentous animal.” Precisely what a dead whale portends, however, has changed drastically. In the Anthropocene, carcasses aren’t always divine gifts; sometimes they’re curses of a sort, the rotten fruits of modernity’s diseased tree. Whales and dolphins are diced by ship propellers, drowned by fishing gear, starved by the plastic bezoars that accumulate in their guts. Pods of pilot whales, agonized and disoriented by the clamor of naval sonar and seismic energy testing, hurl themselves onto beaches. A symbol of nature’s bounty transmutes into a symptom of its collapse. We jettison dead whales not just because they’re smelly shark attractants, perhaps, but to escape the evidence of our sins.
Our treatment of dead whales mirrors our treatment of most dead animals. Highway maintenance personnel haul roadkill to the dump, a reasonable safety measure that also disguises the violence of automobile travel. In Spain, regulations imposed in the wake of Mad Cow Disease require farmers to incinerate livestock rather than letting their bodies nourish vultures. Our aseptic approach to carcass management has short circuited processes, like scavenging and decomposition, that have buttressed ecosystems since the dawn of microbial life. Because objects interred in landfills don’t readily break down, many coastal dumps have become tombs for the unprocessed corpses of whales and dolphins, as eerily preserved as pharaohs in their pyramids. “It’s kind of a joke among marine mammal people,” Stolen says. “When life on Earth ends and the aliens come down, they’re going to wonder what the heck these humans were doing.”
And the management of dead cetaceans will only grow more vexing. Many whale populations have grown in recent decades, meaning there’s more future carrion in the sea; some groups of humpbacks, for instance, have nearly recovered from whaling. Less happily, climate change is already wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems. Along the Pacific Coast, a recent rash of stranded and emaciated gray whales may be symptomatic of dwindling Arctic food supplies. Warmer oceans may also give rise to more infectious diseases and, with them, “mass mortality events.” For some creatures, the carcass boom may present a grim opportunity. During the Pleistocene, when warmer temperatures melted Arctic sea ice and left polar bears unable to hunt seals, Ursus maritimus likely survived by scavenging cetaceans. It’s some solace to think that the great white bear, the poster species for global warming, could yet endure the Anthropocene on a putrescent diet of bowheads and grays.
In a sense, says Quaggiotto, humanity’s relationship with stranded cetaceans must come full circle. A dead whale furnishes vital data about the health of our oceans, reconnects us to nature, and nourishes the scavengers whose waste management services support our own health. A dead whale, as our forebears knew, was both tragedy and gift, an object to be cherished and learned from, not reflexively discarded. “For looking at the future of carcass management, we must also look to the past,” Quaggiotto says.
Our coastlines may be impoverished, yet we can still restore wildness to the processes of death. In May 2010, biologists in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve (GBNPP) spotted a 12.5-meter-long female humpback carcass sprawled across a beach and, sensing opportunity, set out cameras to monitor her fate. Over the next four months, brown bears and wolves feasted almost daily, inscribing networks of pawpaths onto forest and beach. The “blubber bonanza” became a site for ursine reproduction—cameras caught a pair of bears mating—and even innovation. In July, a researcher observed a young bear scrubbing his muzzle with a barnacle-encrusted rock, like a post-prandial diner dabbing himself with a napkin. It was the first time a brown bear had ever been documented using tools. “That carcass seemed to be a beacon calling to these huge bears—and, of course, they got huger and huger,” says Tania Lewis, wildlife biologist at GBNPP. “We can never underestimate the importance of the marine ecosystem for the terrestrial ecosystem.”
The GBNPP humpback was both a cornucopia and an anachronism, a glimpse of the resplendent necrobiome that pre-dated industrial whaling, coastal development, and aseptic carcass management strategies. The feast lasted until early September, when park staff severed the whale’s head to perform a necropsy. Unmoored, the body lolled into the tide and drifted away; later, it would wash up down the beach, where wolves gnawed the bones. As the whale floated into the sunset, observers on the beach noticed a passenger: a seafaring brown bear, still trying to chisel off a few last morsels of blubber before the bounty bobbed away.