The remains of nine school bus-sized whales, believed crushed to death in ice off Newfoundland, have begun washing up in coastal communities.
The endangered North Atlantic blue whales, first spotted last month, were likely killed when ice floes off the southwest coast swiftly changed directions, trapping and killing the world’s largest mammals, say researchers with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Now, they’re being washed ashore.
The corpses of the animals began showing up last week on the edges of Gros Morne National Park.
At least three have reportedly washed up on coastlines: one in Trout River, one in Rocky Harbour and another has possibly came ashore in the Bakers Brook area, according to the Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans.
The carcasses could pose big problems for these tiny communities: They, along with the province, are responsible for dealing with the remains, said Fisheries and Oceans researcher Dr. Jack Lawson.
“Normally, it would have washed ashore on a beach somewhere and would have slowly rotted away and the carnivores and predators would have worked at it until, in a few years time, there would only be bones left,” he said.
Leaving a dead whale to break down naturally isn’t really an option for a community such as Trout River.
Town clerk Emily Butler told Global News it’s not “realistic” to just let the nearly 25-metre whale rot on the beach during the summer months.
“It’s only going to be a matter of time before it warms up and the smell becomes unbearable,” she said, adding businesses along the boardwalk are concerned about the effects such a stench could have on tourist season.
She added inland winds have already given her some idea of how bad the smell could get if it were to waft through the community during warmer weather. “It’s just going to be terrible,” she said.
But, it’s not as simple as just dissecting it and hauling it away.
This particular species is endangered – there were an estimated 250 North Atlantic blue whales prior to the nine found dead last month – and even though the whales are deceased, communities need a special permit to handle them.
The whale in Trout River already had part of a flipper sawed off, Lawson said.
“It’s illegal … collecting it without a permit.”
It’s also a danger for humans to get so close to a dead whale, he added.
“I actually fell up to my waist in a dead pilot whale one time,” he told Global News. “It had just rotted and I fell through the skin while we were doing the processing.
“When they get far enough along in their decay the skin loses its competency and you can fall through inside, where all of the organs have more or less turned to liquid. So, it wouldn’t be a good thing to have happen to anybody.”
He also warned that the animals could be carrying bacteria or viruses that could be harmful and advised against people touching or handling the carcasses.
Lawson said it’s unlikely the whales, which become bloated with gases as they decay, would explode on their own. But he wouldn’t want to be standing close by if someone were to cut into it or poke it with something sharp enough to pop it open.
A video that went viral online earlier this year showed a researcher in the Faroe Islands cutting up a decomposing sperm whale, only to have its guts spew out.
Usually, Lawson said, the animals will deflate as their skin loosens through decomposition.
Meantime, the carcasses will be of great value for scientists like himself.
“We rarely get a chance to look at a whole blue whale,” he told Global News. “So, this is an opportunity for us to collect samples from animals that normally aren’t easy to find and approach.”
He said researchers could be able to examine the beasts for markings, examine and compare DNA and take a look a the toxicology of the remains, to see what “kind of burdens are they carrying, in terms of metals and things like that they pick up in the environment.”
“For scientists, even a dead animal is a source of excitement.”