Exploding whales—they boast a fairly brief, but dramatic history on the internet. Of course, who could forget this horrifying, totally disgusting, but oddly compelling video of a sperm whale carcass exploding in the Faroe Islands?
So when a dead blue whale washed ashore in Trout River, Newfoundland, last week, the Internet had to know: Would it explode?
Helpfully, one expert made us a handy web site: hasthewhaleexplodedyet.com. It’s the work of Andrew David Thaler, a PhD in marine science and a deep-sea ecologist based in the Bay Area of California. He’s also the editor-in-chief of Southern Fried Science, a science writer for Upwell, and a disseminator of fascinating ocean stuff on Twitter at @SFriedScientist.
So we had to track him down and ask the million-dollar questions. Why do whales explode? Just how gross/bad is it when they do? What’s going to happen with this one in Newfoundland?
Here’s a hint—it’s good for the town, but maybe bad for the internet.
Read on for everything you wanted to know about exploding dead whales.
Fusion: As a deep-sea ecologist, what is your particular interest in whales?
Andrew David Thaler: I actually work a lot with dead whales, in the deep sea. When a whale dies at sea, it tends to sink, and that’s a huge input of food into deep-sea ecosystem, which tend to be very food-limited. So it represents basically a massive input of energy and you get these huge, unique communities that grow and live around them.
So I’m very interested in dead whales, primarily at sea-—but I’m also always entertained when whales wash ashore and these kinds of news stories break.
You mentioned that usually, dead whales sink. So why would a dead whale wash onto shore, like this one has done?
Sometimes when whales die close to shore, they strand. Sometimes whales will strand first, then die. I don’t actually know the specifics of what caused these particular whales-—there are actually three of them along the Newfoundland coast—-I don’t know the specifics of what cause these three particular whales to strand, and we won’t know until a necropsy is done, which I believe the Canadian government is preparing.
What kind of information could we get from a necropsy that would explain the stranding?
It could tell you how they died—if they were sick, or injured; if they had choked on marine debris; if they had been injured by sonar. Those kinds of things you can tell. You can also tell how old they are—if they’re very young, if they’re very old, things like that.
With these viral stories of exploding whales, why aren’t they able to be removed before they actually explode?
Whales are big—that’s the primary issue. And usually when they strand, they don’t strand in a place that’s terribly convenient to get to. So you wouldn’t be able to, say, bring a boat right up to it and tow it away. I think this one [in Newfoundland] is 170-ton animal. You couldn’t just winch it off.
It usually requires quite a bit of earth-moving equipment to move a whale. So usually what happens is that they’re buried on site. If they’re on a sandy shoreline, they’ll just bury them in the sand and kind of cordon off the area so people don’t go digging for them.
For a case like this, it would just require quite a bit of work to get them moving. You also don’t want to move them when they’re in these kinds of decomposing stages because they are a health hazard.
There’s a lot of E. coli and bacteria growing on them. Coming in contact with them can be not good for your health. People should really stay away and let professionals assess the scene and come in when they’re ready and confident they can safely remove it.
What else, besides E. coli, is on a decomposing whale that could be hazardous to your health?
Whales carry quite a bit of bacteria and parasites. They’re a pretty big ecosystem on their own when they’re swimming in the ocean, so there’s a lot of stuff on whales that you probably don’t want to get in your lungs or in your skin.
Alright, so what exactly causes them to explode?
A whale is a really nice, contained package with a big, big layer of blubber around it that’s designed to keep everything in and keep water out while it’s diving. So they actually make fairly good balloons, as you can see in some of the pictures.
And, like most mammals, when they die and they aren’t scavenged—-or they’re too big to be effectively scavenged—-their viscera begins to decompose, whatever contents were in their stomach. That produces methane and hydrogen sulfide and a couple other gases, which are going to begin expanding, especially if it’s sitting in the sun for a couple of weeks.
Eventually, they can explode. They don’t all explode, and this whale might not explode. But they can, and usually when they do, and someone’s there with a camera, it produces a pretty dramatic image.
What inspired you, exactly, to make hasthewhaleexplodedyet.com?
I’ve always enjoyed videos of whales. I run a website and do a lot of science outreach online, and I saw it as an opportunity to make something with the potential to go viral, and then teach people a little bit, primarily about what to do when you encounter a stranded marine animal.
If you’re walking down the beach and you see a blue whale sitting on the beach, starting to rapidly expand as it’s rotting, a lot of people might think, “Hey, I should go up and get a picture. I should go stand on it and get some photos.” I really wanted to tap into a little bit of the excitement around the stranded whale, and provide a little bit of information on what to do and what not to do.
Obviously you shouldn’t go up and poke it or push it back into the water. What should you do if you encounter such a stranded animal?
If it’s alive, or if it’s dead, the very first thing you need to do is get in contact with a local marine mammal stranding network. They’ll have the experts who know what to do and how to deal with it. On the hasthewhaleexplodedyet.com web site, there’s a link to all the networks you can call in the U.S. If you’re not in the U.S., you’ll just have to do a little Googling to find your local stranding networks.
You should definitely not try to move them. Often animals will strand for a reason, and if they’re sick or injured and you try to drag them back into the sea, you can end up actually causing more damage.
You should provide supportive care. If there are a lot of sea birds around harassing them, you should try to do something to chase the sea birds away. If the sun is beating down on them, you should try to provide some coverage from the sun, if actual professionals from the stranding network aren’t imminently on their way.
Another kind of supportive care: If it’s a dolphin and one of its flippers is being crushed as it rolls over, digging a hole underneath them so they have somewhere to go, so it’s not being crushed by its body. These are animals that don’t often encounter solid ground. They’re not built to be on hard ground; they’re built to be floating in the ocean.
So, provide supportive care, don’t move them, and get in touch with your local stranding network as soon as possible, and then follow their directions.
Besides the gross factor, are there any public health or environmental consequences from a sudden whale explosion?
There are a few public health consequences. Obviously the smell is a tremendous issue for a community that [a whale] is stranded by. There aren’t major ecological consequences. Obviously large mammals do die and they do decompose. It’s not terribly different from the way the natural world usually functions.
Trying to move it and contain it, and probably erecting some infrastructure to get it out of the way, obviously has the effect of altering the shoreline.
Million-dollar question: Do you think this whale is going to explode?
I don’t think it is now. The first day when it was really starting to bloat, there was a chance. But as the days go on, it’s going to be decomposing more. It’s going to be less of a nice, solid balloon and more of a falling-apart carcass. There will be more and more voids for gas to escape out of. So I think it’ll probably deflate in the next few days.
Arielle Castillo is Fusion's culture editor, reporting on arts, music, culture, and subcultures from the streets on up. She's also a connoisseur of weird Florida, weightlifting, and cats.