Why Does a Decomposing Whale Explode?

The small town of Trout River, Newfoundland, has a big problem: a dead blue whale stranded on one of its beaches.

Experts are scrambling to find a way to dispose of the 380,000-pound (170,000-kilogram) corpse before gases generated by its decomposing body cause it to explode.

The bloated whale is seen on April 30 in Trout River, Canada. Photograph by Don Bradshaw, NTV News

News of the bulging behemoth has gone viral, with hundreds of news articles and the creation of the hashtag #explodingwhale and the website Has the Whale Exploded Yet?

But no one knows when the whale’s going to blow, if at all. Don Bradshaw, a reporter for Newfoundland station NTV News, has tweeted that the gas inside the whale has begun to naturally deflate.

National Geographic spoke to the exploding-whale website’s founder, Andrew David Thaler, a marine biologist who also runs the blog Southern Fried Science, to learn more about the phenomenon of exploding beached whales.

How frequently do dead whales end up on beaches?

Marine mammal strandings, either alive or dead, are not particularly uncommon. [Strandings of] big whales, like blue whales, are much more rare simply because there are very few blue whales left [in the world]. (Explore National Geographic’s blue whale interactive.)

A composite photo of a whale bloated and deflating
The whale is seen bloated with gas (left) and a more recent picture of it slowly deflating. Photographs by Don Bradshaw, NTV

What would cause a whale to explode?

Gas builds up as the animal’s viscera and stomach contents decompose, but whale skin and blubber are tough. The massive throat pouch that you see inflating in all the pictures is designed to fill with seawater and then force it out through baleen [the keratin plate that whales use to filter food]. It can handle a lot of pressure.

[Usually what] causes whales to explode is people doing stuff to them, either from bystanders trying to climb on or take a souvenir from the carcass, crews trying to move the carcass, or, in the case of the Faroes exploding sperm whale, intentionally degassing it (graphic video). That’s one very good reason you should never approach a dead-whale carcass.

If the whale died in the ocean, what would happen to its body?

When a whale dies at sea, it will eventually sink. Whales are so big that scavengers aren’t able to tear the carcass apart, so they often arrive on the seafloor intact. The deep sea is generally a pretty low-energy environment, so an entire whale represents a massive influx of food. (Related: “Dead Whale Contains a Bounty of Life.”)

A photo of a bloated whale in Newfoundland.
The whale seen on April 27. Photograph by Don Bradshaw, NTV News

Entire communities grow around these “whalefalls.” First the mobile scavengers—large deep-sea sharks, hagfish, and others—come in to remove soft tissue and break apart the carcass. Later, creatures like Osedax mucofloris, the bone-eating worm, arrive to slowly break down the bones. (Watch an animated video of the phases of a whalefall.)

This entire process can take 30 years or more, so the afterlife of a whale is as ecologically significant as its natural life.

What are a community’s options to dispose of a beached whale’s dead body?

The best option is usually to bury it on site. If that is not possible, removal is a challenging proposition. Whales are huge, and bringing in major earth moving equipment in some cases can be more destructive to the shoreline than just leaving the whale to decompose naturally. (Related: “A New, More Humane Way to Euthanize Stranded Whales.”)

News reports say that residents were complaining about the smell. What exactly does dead, bloated whale smell like?

Imagine a jar of bacon grease that you leave out in the sun for weeks. Now imagine that odor is so potent that it clings to everything you own. It gets in your sinuses and stays there for days afterward. I participated in the necropsy of a right whale about six years ago and my chest-waders still smell faintly like that day. Decomposing whale is one of the worst smells in the world.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Carrie is a freelance science writer living in Virginia. When she's not writing about cool critters, she's spending time outside, drinking coffee, or knitting. You can visit her website at http://www.carriearnold.com
  • JW

    Is it not possible to wait for it to degas and tow it out to sea and release it? This would remove the carcass from the shoreline and would create a “whalefall” ecosystem on the ocean floor at that site. It’s a win for everyone.

  • Dwayne LaGrou

    The problem with what you suggest is that the weight of the whale combined with the suction holding it to the ground and the fragile nature of the body usually prevents them from just wrapping something around it and dragging it away. Just imagine it weighing about 150 to 200 tons with the sand wrapped around the bottom of it and the water preventing any air from getting under it. It’s like trying to drag a garbage bag full of pumpkin guts, A very difficult task !!!

  • Angela bell

    its more logical to tow it out to deep water and let nature do its job food for all the sea creatures its Recycling really not Rocket science ……

  • Ima Ryma

    1970 – a dead whale,
    Bloated on an Oregon beach.
    Bureaucrats opted to avail
    Of dynamite – the end to reach
    Of out of sight then out of mind.
    The manmade blast blew blubber on
    All of the amassed humankind.
    The thrill and excitement were gone.
    But lots of the carcass remained,
    Now still more of a stinkaroo.
    Bureaucrats regrouped and rebrained,
    For health and safety – what to do.

    Oregon banned blowing up, and
    Bury dead beached whales in the sand.

  • nandita

    how to get a job in travel and living? tell me how !! i have searched everywhere but could find anything useful -_-

  • TvFan

    JW- excellent solution. I just wonder if it wouldn’t break apart during the towing process?

  • Jasmine Syedda

    With all of the people bothering the carcass it would probably explode before it finishes degassing. (Their own fault). I wondered how the whale ended up on the beach.

  • Rodney

    Because it weighs 380,000 pounds, JW. That’s a lot of dead weight if you know what I mean.

  • Stormbow

    Not possible. Whatever was tied to the whale would either tear pieces of the whale off (the decomposing tale, for example) or slice right through the flesh (the midsection of the body, if any sort of tether was capable of being placed around it). In either case, you’d have 2 giant pieces of whale instead of one.

  • Dave Smith

    What about chopping it up with the assistance of a fishmonger / butcher and scattering the pieces out to sea in more manageable sizes? It’s a win for the ecosystem and the residents will no longer have to put up with the smell…

  • Gavin Gamache

    @JW: The whale’s body is just not strong enough to support its own weight being dragged across a beach; it would come apart. Whales are too massive to exist without the buoyancy of being surrounded by water.

  • Meagan

    I agree with JW. Why don’t we just tow it out to sea?

  • Sherry

    Is this possible to cut the whale into smaller pieces, so their moving around gets easier? We can then dump the pieces into the sea to decompose while the neighborhood residents don’t have to bear the smell for years.

  • Tom

    Why not pull it out to sea and sink it to the bottom for food for the others? Isn’t that what hapes Naturally?

  • Starbukk

    The whale is heavy and decomposing so I would expect it to come apart at any attempt to move it.

  • joe

    get some local prisoners to come degas it then cut it up pound by pound, lol. or secure it via kevlar tarp to a few tug boats and haul it the f out. come on it’s 2014 we’re about to go to mars how hard can it be geez

  • Raymond Williamson

    Why couldn’t it be towed out to sea, by a couple of towboats,??

  • Kimiko

    I’m wondering how often autopsy is done on these stranded mammals. These corpse could provide us the chances to study if they died simply from old age or other causes.

    • Carrie Arnold

      I was wondering that myself. I’m guessing researchers will do a necropsy on the whale when it gets to the museum so they can determine cause of death and other aspects of the whale’s biology.

  • Dr jagtap

    Is it possible biodegradable insects earthworms & magots may degrade t whales

    • Carrie Arnold

      Over time, yes. But whales are very large and earthworms and maggots are very small. So it could take years to break it down. When a whale dies at sea and falls to the bottom of the ocean, it creates a feast for deep sea life that can last for years.

  • Edwin Cuna

    Let the Japanese whale trawler remove the carcass: they are expert in catching whales and also they are resuming their research on whales.

  • JonW

    @JW I was wondering the same thing. It seems to me that something as simple as a tugboat and some cable could solve this problem. Sinking might still get messy but at least the impact on the community would be minimized.

  • Radhika

    Same question as JW. Can what happens in nature not be replicated?

  • TSC

    @JW It’s a 170 ton guy, it’ll be very hard for local equipment to do so

  • Az

    I think the best idea would be to drag the whale to sea and anchor it down. why is this not a possible solution?

    • Carrie Arnold

      Remember the last line in Jaws, about the one where they will need a bigger boat? That’s the problem: there aren’t any boats big enough to transport the whale, or even drag it through the water. But not a bad idea!

  • Kreig

    Can’t you just blow it up with explosives? Or set it ablaze with fuels and stuff? Bury it? Air lift it somewhere? Poke it? Just saying….

    • Carrie Arnold

      They tried doing that in Oregon and the results were…messy. My fiance’s family got to witness the spectacle, and the stories are family legend. You can see a YouTube video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBgThvB_IDQ

      As for burning it, I’m guessing the smells would be hugely problematic. Charred rancid blubber? Yick. And it’s hard to get the proper equipment to lift something as big as a whale or dig a hole big enough. It’s a massive engineering problem! But you’re not alone in developing those solutions. 🙂

  • Davie Mururi

    Amazed by the facts.

  • Hamza Adzemovic

    I think it’s beacuse of Narwhals

  • Jav1967

    Tasteless sushi

  • Mark Finne

    Who weighed it?

    • Carrie Arnold

      I’m not sure if anyone has weighed it yet, but I’ll let you know if they do!

  • Breezy peas

    The people who thought this whale was actually going to explode are so unaware of animals and sealife. More people need to realize that animals like this were probably killed in an accident caused by humans, and it should be carried to the ocean where it can sink. It makes me scared to think that generations upon generations away our descendants will not know what it’s like to live in the same world as whales, and we will be to blame.

    • Carrie Arnold

      It’s a really good point- many species of whale are endangered, and human activities are definitely contributing to that in a big way. Whether human behaviors contributed to the specific deaths of these whales is yet unclear, but you’re right- it is sad to think about living in a world without such magnificent creatures.

  • Oscar

    To me, the best option is to cut the carcass into pieces, and throw them into the sea as food for sea creatures.
    Towing the carcass to sea I think isn’t a good idea because, if trying to tow, the body will scatter making it more difficult to handle.

  • aitor

    ES MAZO DE GRANDE!!!!!!!!!!

  • Robert Botts

    They’ve tried towing some smaller whales to sea and anchoring them to the seafloor, however, the decomposing whales broke free in a storm and washed up back on shore… not in the exact same place, but near enough that the problem didn’t go away, but became more complex, because it forced another community/jurisdiction to become involved.

    Previous whale projects weren’t without their problems and can be expensive.

    This one occurred not far from the family homestead… the smell was stuff of legends.

  • Linda

    Why don’t they fire a bullet that makes the outgoing hole bigger and fire it toward the water. It would relieve the pressure

  • Kimberly

    I live an hr or so away guys and this whale got caught in ice a few weeks ago it killed 9 of them this is 1 of three that washed up! Do your research! And don’t be so disrespectful. The word is to give them to a museum in Ontario

  • Gian Toyos

    @ Kimiko & @Carrie Arnold – Autopsies on marine mammals (whales, dolphins, manatees, seals, sea lions…) are performed almost on a daily basis around the world, that job is done by scientists working at Stranding Networks. In most cases the carcasses are not transported to museums or labs, the necropsies are performed on the field since the animals are too big or too decomposed.

    To answer some of the other questions or suggestions given above, there are many options, there are complete manuals (google – Geraci’s Marine Mammals Ashore) dedicated to describe the protocols to follow when a marine mammal appears stranded, which as you know are protected by federal and state laws (even when dead).

    Ideally after a necropsy you would remove all the flesh and save the bones for further studies or education. We tried using a chainsaw to cut and dispose of a dead humpback whale…the chain broke, firing bullets to let the gas escape – don’t think so. Maybe there are cranes or ships big enough to tow them, but the problem is finding a rope/chain/cable and/or hooks strong enough to drag it…this animals are big, so big that when they are out of the water their own wait under the pressure of gravity will kill them.

    In this case, based on the pictures I have seen, if the smell is a big problem they should cover the carcass with a lot of sand or dig a hole and bury it. The problem is that the process of decomposition will be slowed down…best thing to do, leave it where it is and restrict the access to the area.

  • ivan

    one could use the Osedax antarticus bacteria to avoid this problem?

  • KC

    It’s a Whale! Big, heavy fish that’s lifeless. Tow boat is no option; Cut up by a butcher No Corporation/Man is going to pay for this. It’s destined to stink & rot because that’s what human beings do to the Ocean’s life

  • nana

    what a pity

  • Patrick Han

    OMG i saw this whale in the news and it exploded and it was super gross

  • HI

    This will sure smell bad 🙁

  • Derek

    The moment I saw this story on the news, I thought this sucker is probably too big to get towed out.

    Here’s a crazy idea. How about securing it with more of those boulders towards the shore and then tarping it with the fabric we use to tarp the manure piles.

    Encourage decomposition under the tarp and capture the gas in a small anaerobic digester. Use the power that’s generated from the facility for a small visitor center and exhibition on site.

    Surely the story will attract visitors from everywhere now. Build a unique structure to display and educate about whales in general.

    With the publicity, the town may find a sponsor for the digester and maybe even for the venue itself. It’s not quite Drumheller but has the potential to be the foundation for a new cool whale research station.

    The town should look at the opportunity and seek Canadian ingenuity and entrepreneurship. Some federal monies should flow their way as well in a private / public venture.

    It can be done!

  • JOHN

    how about trying to burn it? Will it remove the smell totally? :3

  • robertbruedle

    exploding whales are doper than dope in a fridge to keep it fresh

  • lala

    this was cool

  • bghsz

    use chinooks

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