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Whale of a problem

Sometimes the best way to get rid of a dead whale is to blow it up

About a week ago, an unwanted guest washed up on the rocky shores of a tiny Newfoundland town, a few feet away from a community boardwalk. At first merely an oddity, now the carcass of the 81-foot (25 meter) blue whale, which weighs an estimated 80 tonnes (88.2 tons), is starting to smell pretty foul. But that’s not the only thing worrying businesses and residents of Trout River, the town where the whale beached.

“The whale is blowing up. It looks as if it’s a big balloon, from a distance,” Emily Butler, Trout River’s town manager, told Canada’s CBC News. “There is a possibility as well, with all the gases inside the whale, that it may possibly explode.”

She’s right.

The danger of exploding whales might sound Monty Python-esque, but it’s no joke. Whales eat tons of fish, krill, plankton and squid each day; as the whale decomposes, so does that food, creating a growing pocket of gases—methane, hydrogen sulphide and ammonia—in the whale’s abdomen.

What happens when those gases finally burst? The residents of Tainan, Taiwan, know. A 60-ton sperm whale washed up on nearby shores in 2004. Hoping to dissect it for research, scientists loaded the dead whale onto a tractor-trailer using three cranes and set off for a nearby university. On their way through the city, however, the whale exploded, showering stores, cars and onlookers with a putrid cascade of blood and guts (link in Chinese) at a radius of 30 meters.

DATE IMPORTED:January 26, 2004The stomach from the corpse of a 17-metre sperm whale to the National Cheng Kung University are seen on the street in Tainan in southern Taiwan for an autopsy on January 26, 2004. The whale ran aground and died on a beach in the southwestern county of Yunlin on January 17. Due to internal decomposition, the whale's organs burst from its belly on the way to university's laboratory. HONG KONG OUT TAIWAN OUT REUTERS/Taiwan Apple Daily
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Post-explosion.Reuters/Taiwan Apple Daily

That’s not something that Trout River, which depends heavily on summer tourism for revenue, would like to experience. So far, various Canadian government agencies have declined to move the whale, which most likely perished in heavy ice off the western coast of Newfoundland.

Not that the task is an easy one. Burial is a possibility, though it would require heavy equipment and sufficient land, and would do nothing for the stench, which can be overpowering. Whales are often too heavy to tow, and even if they can be dragged out to sea, their buoyant carcasses can pose a risk to ships.

In fact, the most reliable way of getting rid of colossal dead whales is to simply beat Nature to the punch. Perhaps the most notorious incident occurred in 1970 in the town of Florence, Oregon, where a 45-foot dead whale washed up. As an unbearable stench began suffusing the area, local highway officials consulted with the US Navy and ultimately determined that the best thing to do was to break it into bite-sized pieces for seagulls and crabs. And the way to do that, naturally, is to embed 20 crates of dynamite under the whale and detonate. The resulting shower of putrefying whale shrapnel pelted spectators and smashed a car.

Strategies haven’t gotten a lot more sophisticated since then. Australia euthanized a terminally ill whale in 2010 by blowing it up. South Africa has resorted to explosives in several beached whale episodes in the last decade or so.

A more recent technique is to “pop” the whale carcass the way you might a blister, lancing its viscera to release methane. Not always a great idea, if the attempt in the Faroe Islands in November 2013 is anything to go by. Buzzfeed made it into a gif:

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