The ugly logistics of dealing with 60,000 pounds of dead whale

Image: AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi
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Nature can be brutal.

This became painfully clear to the California Department of Parks and Recreation last week after a 40-foot gray whale washed ashore at Lower Trestles, a popular surf spot 60 miles south of Los Angeles.

The whale’s welfare was not in question—it had died at sea, apparently of natural causes. But after washing ashore April 24, the majestic animal was reduced to 60,000 pounds of hazardous waste, presenting a messy and difficult problem for public officials.

“It couldn’t have washed up in a worse place,” State Park Superintendent Rich Haydon told the Orange County Register.

The beach was too small for local burial and too close to nearby train tracks to bring in big equipment to haul it away in one piece. Windy weather made it hard to charter a boat to pull the carcass back out to sea, and even if that were possible, it would probably wash up back to shore.

With every passing hour, the body was growing stinkier, oozier, and sinking further into the sand. Surfers complained that the smell was attracting sharks to the popular surf spot.

Whale decomposition follows a predictable arc in which things turn quickly from gross to nightmarish. There are reasons why “exploding whale” yields so many hits on YouTube. (The video below is not of the Lower Trestles whale.)

Finally, the state came up with an effective—if somewhat gruesome—solution. The body would be chopped into pieces and taken to a landfill.

After clearing the perimeter and warning away children and the squeamish—“you just don’t know what you’re going to see,” state parks safety superintendent Kevin Pearsall told the LA Times—the state brought in a contractor on April 28, four days after the animal washed ashore. In a cross between a demolition job and veterinary surgery, workers tarped down the area and used straw to keep fluids from leaking further in the sand. Earthmoving equipment reduced the carcass to pieces of manageable size.

By last Friday (April 29) the $30,000 removal operation was over. The top layer of sand was skimmed away, and the whale’s remnants were en route to their final resting place in a San Diego County landfill.

“They said it was messy but it wasn’t as messy as it could have been,” superintendent Haydon told the Register. “It’s to be expected there will be a little bit of a smell down there for awhile, but I think we dodged a bullet.”