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Disposing of a whale? A hulk of a problem

Safely getting rid of a rotting carcass is quite the challenge, as beach towns recently learned.

October 08, 2007|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

What to do with a dead whale is no small problem.

Tow it to sea and it just might come back -- as did the remains of a 70-ton blue whale that washed up on Malibu beaches twice last week.

Stick it in the ground and its oils might leach back into the ocean, drawing sharks eager for dinner. That happened with a whale buried at a popular San Diego County surfing spot in 2003.

Blow it up and you just might end up showering blubber on hapless spectators, as did the state of Oregon in a 1970 incident still kept pungently alive on the Internet and in columns by humorist Dave Barry.

An undisputed environmental tragedy, the recent deaths of three blue whales off Southern California also posed a problem for communities faced with disposing of 60 or 70 tons of decomposing cetacean that had rolled into their beaches and harbors.

The difficulties, all too well known to whale researchers, are wryly summed up by the authors of the 2005 edition of "Marine Mammals Ashore: A Field Guide for Strandings."

"The simplest way for a carcass to disappear is to turn your back on it and walk away," advise scientists Joseph R. Geraci and Valerie J. Lounsbury.

That's not really possible on a coastline dotted with beaches, campgrounds, prized surfing spots and homes of the rich and famous.

Just sniffing distance from the exclusive Malibu Colony, a ripe hulk drifted ashore Thursday -- the remains of a blue whale that had been killed by a ship in the Santa Barbara Channel, towed to sea after a necropsy at Point Mugu, washed back ashore at Malibu's Broad Beach on Sept. 30, and towed out again before re-beaching near celebrity homes.

Like an endless series of bad movie sequels, Return of the Whale raised a predictable question: Why don't they just take it out and sink it the way a B-film Mafioso would, concrete-overshoes style?

That's sometimes possible with smaller whales, said Geraci, co-author of the stranding handbook and a Connecticut-based marine consultant.

"It just takes a whole lot of anchors to sink 30 or 40 tons of blubber," he said. "That stuff is fat. It floats really well. It's like saying, 'How many anchors do I have to hang on the side of a 30-ton boat to sink it?' "

Even explosives don't always work. When a dead finback whale was towed from a cove near the Bush family's vacation home in Maine, charges placed on its body "did little more than send up smoke and put holes in the whale," the New York Times reported in 1991.

In remote areas, cremation is a possibility. When 41 sperm whales drifted ashore in Oregon in 1979, biologist Bruce Mate dug an enormous trench and doused them with diesel fuel after he and other scientists had studied them.

"The fires burned for two days," said Mate, head of Oregon State University's Marine Mammal Institute, adding that there were no neighbors around to comment on the odor.

In "Moby-Dick," Herman Melville didn't care much for burning whale flesh. "It smells like the left wing of the Day of Judgment," he wrote. "It is an argument for the pit."

Jurisdictional squabbles are also vexing, as local governments generally are not eager to deal with the carcasses and the crowds who come to view them.

"Every time a whale washes up, it becomes a political mess," said Joe Cordaro, a Long Beach-based biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In Malibu last year, it took four days to bury a 35-foot gray whale that sprawled over both county and private property. Finally, the city took responsibility.

Last month, the Ventura County parks department cut up and buried a 70-ton blue whale that had washed onto a state beach.

"We don't own the actual sand," said parks official Ron Van Dyck, "but it was in the county's footprint, and leaving it alone would have impacted county residents."

After the whale's burial in a 15-foot-deep hole, part of its tail poked through the sand but was consumed by sea birds, he said.

The odor, the brown goo on nearby beaches, the chunks of whale in the water -- all are long gone. However, some surfers say they've seen an unusual number of thresher sharks in the vicinity, a presence they attribute to oozing whale oil.

"Is there also a great white lurking?" asked Paul Jenkin, environmental director of the Surfrider Foundation's local chapter. "When you're out there surfing on your own, it's definitely a concern."

That's only appropriate, said Ralph Collier, a shark researcher who has documented attacks off the California coast since 1962.

Collier said it was oils from a buried whale at San Onofre State Beach that attracted white sharks to the storied surfing spot in 2003. Even months after the burial, Collier said, "you could stand on the cliff and see a slick on the surface of the water being carried out to sea. It was as if a tantalizing aroma had been placed in the water."

He shot a widely circulated video of San Onofre sharks that caused alarm among surfers and safety officials.

For all that, nobody is suggesting that Southern California emulate Oregon in dealing with the 10 or so whales that wash up on its shores yearly.

On Nov. 12, 1970, Oregon highway workers, in collaboration with the Navy, used half a ton of dynamite to blow up a beached whale near the coastal town of Florence. A 15-square-foot chunk of blubber demolished the roof of a Buick parked a quarter-mile away.

Mate, the Oregon biologist, was there.

"I arrived as a young scientist and said, 'I'd like to get in here and get some samples and measurements,' " he recalled. "They said, 'OK, sonny, you've got about half an hour.' "

When the time came, Mate was ready, he said. "I moved to a faraway dune and watched it rain rancid oil all over the place."

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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